The fun that is Questlandia

I got Questlandia from a Bundle of Holding a little while back, and I decided to run it for a one-shot adventure for a series while I get my group back into gaming after a long hiatus. Frankly, I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier.

I described Questlandia to my group as “Annalise as designed by Klaus Teuber of Settlers of Catan,” because Questlandia ends after three rounds, as opposed to Annalise’s glacial progression through discovery of all things vampiric. But play-wise, they’re somewhat similar; both involve an “active player” roleplaying a scene until a conflict that gets resolved with dice, then it’s another player’s turn.

Questlandia also has tighter mechanics, too. Each player has responsibility for a particular part of the game world, so the players don’t get whipsawed by plot twists in a round-robin; if you’re not the player who answers questions about the country’s religion, you can’t suddenly make it a front for a spider demon cult. I found it helpful to have someone be “secretary” for the group; I kept telling that person, after something was said, “write that down, that’s canon.” Everything is generated in a communal style so no one is left at the end having to rectify everyone else’s continuity.

We got through two rounds of three in three hours, with various chit-chat, and it played as follows:

We generated a fantasy nation of wookie-like people obsessed with social control and run by wizards (a “Wizz-ocracy” in game terms) who were also slowly dying out but clung to their power. The country was on an island slowly sinking into the ocean, but that was less troublesome to most players than the oppressive government; most goals were about overthrowing the government, except for one traditionalist who wanted to preserve it, and my player, who was interested in keeping the island from sinking.

As play went on, opposition to the wizz-ocracy grew as events caused the wizards to draw more of the wealth into the upper class. Also there was something about a doomsday machine, a prophesied child, a secret policeman-turned-love interest, and the traditionalist player got her puppet candidate elected mayor of the country’s capital city. Fun was had by all.

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Annalise – First two rounds

Met up with my group and ran the introductions and first foundation round of Annalise today. It was a slower start than expected, but the game is promising.

First, of course, everyone had to get on board with what was going on. One of the things about Annalise is that no one’s the “one” game master, but everyone takes turns, and some people really got tied up in knots about that, having not gamemastered before. It required a lot of prompting for people not to tell the whole story, or to make the story go somewhere. Once people got into the swing of it, it started working out.

The next issue, which still needs to be worked out, is that people weren’t claiming enough. In Annalise, you get extra points by “claiming” people, places, or things that you want to repeat in the story, and using the points while weaving the claim into the story to manipulate dice rolls. I warned them that this could be a problem like Our Last Best Hope, where you might not have enough story points to make it okay to the end, but people I think don’t yet realize the raw power of claims. I went last in the round, and I owned the heck out of a die-rolling challenge using points off my claims, so hopefully for the next session people will get it.

As far as I can tell, no too-crazy secrets. You know I was worried.

Annalise – Trying Not To Hijack the Game

So, hoping to get a session of Annalise together with my group (if I can corral those cats). Looking over the rules again, I’m trying to figure out how to avoid defining characters in a way that blows up the game.

For those of you who haven’t just spent a couple hours reading and re-reading the rules, Annalise is a round-robin storytelling RPG about a vampire (either literal or metaphorical). Everyone plays a character, and everyone takes a turn as a sort-of-gamemaster.

Mechanically, everyone has two stats. There’s vulnerability, a statement of a weak point in the character’s personality. When this drops to zero, the character risks becoming a servant of the vampire. The other stat is the secret, a fact that the character hides from everyone else in the game until an appropriately dramatic moment or when the stat drops to zero. Each of these stats pay for “satellite traits” which enable the real business of conflict resolution in the game.

However, you don’t get to pick your own secret. Everyone writes down two and then you pick from a stack. This gives everyone a chance to basically derail what everyone else is doing from the get-go if there isn’t an appropriate discussion of what sort of game we’re all expecting, you can end up with characters with all the following secrets:

  • “I can read minds.”
  • “I am a serial killer.”
  • “My foster parents locked me in a box for days when I was bad.”
  • “I am a space alien.”

And then we’re all over the place with our storytelling, like those old stories we wrote paragraph by paragraph on paper, leaving only the last sentence of each paragraph for the next person. I don’t think that’s going to be as much fun to play.

So, I’m going to, during the strongly recommended pre-game prep where all the players tell the other players not to do things that squick them out, try to get everyone on the same page.

If I have space aliens and superpowers in my gothic horror anyway, I’ll let you know.

Our Last Best Hope – Use Those Story Hooks When You Can

In late October, when I was just getting my ad hoc gaming group started, I ran Our Last Best Hope, a hybrid board game/roleplaying game from Magpie Games. I can say without qualification that fun was had by all.

The conceit of Our Last Best Hope is that the world is facing an apocalyptic threat (“space,” “snow,” and “zombies” are included in the main book), and the players are the one desperate shot at saving humanity. Players can be soldiers, doctors, scientists, or engineers, each with special abilities to deal with threats.

Our Last Best Hope is a “storytelling game” without a gamemaster; each turn a particular player has a roleplaying experience during which he or she tries to accumulate “story points” so that, at the end of the roleplaying phase, the story points can be used for extra dice to deal with a threat.

I decided unilaterally that the apocalypse would be space-based, because nothing says apocalypse like rehashing the plot of Armageddon. We decided we’d be trying to disarm a rogue Soviet Mars probe that was going to detonate its Cold War nuclear payload, shunting the Red Planet on a collision course with Earth. We had two engineers, two scientists, a doctor, and a soldier.

Everyone died. We may have fudged the rules at the end, so maybe we saved the Earth, but everyone died. What we didn’t realize was that, if you don’t roleplay to get your story points early on, a sequence of bad rolls can enmesh the players in a cascade of increasing threats, so that after one round, everyone’s somewhat injured and already down on “touchstones” (free single-use story items, such as the saxophone we ended up jamming into a breached airlock) and drawing down the common story point pool we were hoping to use against the cataclysm at the end.

Because of that, midway through, when there’s a roll to determine if you made the right choices so far, we failed catastrophically. I think it wiped out all of our special gear and killed half of the table right then. After that, we were just too low on story points and health to go much further, although our deaths did contribute extra dice to the end.

That said, we had amazing fun. We were screaming at the players who “made us crazy,” chatting with the players who “made us sane,” and revealing horrible secrets like how both engineers had fudged their qualifications. We laughed a lot, and would totally do it again.