Too Much Too Soon

I made a pig’s ear of writing a scenario for John Keyworth’s game-in-development Intrepid Histories. Easy done, and most instructive.

Recent peregrinations in story-gaming have led me to the shadowy borderland between two styles of play:-

  • Escapist games led by one person which encourage players to relax into the story and the world it creates; and which, with some irony, can tend to encourage everyone at the table to play a version of their usual social dynamic.
  • Games designed to achieve a specific effect by using rules to govern circularity and flow between players of any level of experience; and which, with some irony, often involve being told every five minutes you’re playing it wrong.

Mixing these styles can be fraught – people have OPINIONS – but, for me, John’s game gets it just right. So much so that I pestered him into letting me draw up a version of the game based on the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century.

I thought I’d be playing to my (imagined) strengths by adding historical detail to the simple set-up John generally favours – the map of a line-drawn journey from history altered only by one ‘world fact’ (ie difference) per player.

Thus the route is prescribed but the characters and events improvised, punctuated only by plot-points to indicate the opportunity to spend a token to frame a scene or vignette of the journey.


But no: I wanted to show off the extensive reading I’d done about the conquest of Mexico over the years and ended up with a character-by-character breakdown, similar to the set-up in Montsegur 1244 – a game I’d played for the first time a couple of weeks before.

I also cluttered the map with historical facts, effectively inhibiting players’ propensity to improvise. John was kind about my efforts, but I realised I’d made a mistake.

I played instead in a version of the Jack the Ripper narrative – not usually my thing – which used a scratch-map of the five murders over an imaginary London. Players chose hyper-industrialisation, opium-dealing elves and dwarves in the Underground as their ‘world facts’. The police force had been formed by the nobility. Each point on the map indicated both a scene in the investigation and a flashback to the murder. It was fun.

Clichés about a ‘rules-lite’ approach to games with ingredients so intricately-connected you can’t change one without altering the effect of another turn out to true – in the case of Intrepid Histories at least.

Wondering if a similar method would work in a genre of game I knew fairly well, I took a look at Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark, which uses a D6, or, if you prefer, three D6s, to communicate the essence of Lovecraftian gaming:-

  • One die if the task is within human capabilities.cthulhu-dark
  • One die if it’s within your occupational expertise.
  • Your Insanity die, if you will risk your sanity to succeed.

I love this. And yes, in a game this boiled-down you’re going to encounter situations not covered by the rules. But that’s a) an opportunity to improvise, or b) a chance to refer to your other experiences of playing another version of Call of Cthulhu, or c) both. The game is highly-adaptable. You could use it as an adjunct to another campaign of play or drop it ad-hoc into any social situation.

Of the many kinds of preparation, those which understand which bits to leave out seem most effective. I knew this already, of course, but it’s good to learn a bit more about why that is. It’s the absences that let the creativity in.

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