The Society of Dreamers didn’t run but I did get to play in Ralph Lovegrove’s entertaining Pan Tangian travelogue See Hwamgaarl and Die! and in John Keyworth’s 1812 playset for Intrepid Histories, offered by Steve Dempsey. As always at Concrete Cow, everyone was warm, convivial and inviting.
Phase three turns out to be important to Intrepid Histories – both in terms of its four-act structure and in terms of the third of the four scenes that make up each of its acts.
The prior draft of Disease of the Heart unconsciously primed those playing to take the part of the invading Conquistadors by rolling forth from right-to-left, landing then the battle and alliance with Tlaxcala then the massacre at Cholula then the Siege of Tenochtitlan.
Designer John Keyworth suggests in his playtest document that one should design scenarios with a third act set in dramatic opposition or from a contrasting point of view to those of the first two acts. In John’s 1812 scenario, for instance, the first act (itself composed of four scenes) covers the march of Napoleon’s Grande Armée to Russia and the second act the army fighting its way to Moscow, but the third act consciously switches perspective to that of Tsar Alexander I and the people about to be besieged. This proves crucial to the dramatic shape of the game.
It operates too at the level of the four scenes that make up each act:-
- Scene one starts the ball rolling.
- Scene two develops events.
- Scene three follows different characters.
- Scene four wraps up the act by uniting the two narrative strands.
That this dramatic fractal is fairly subtle does not make it any the less important. I’ve changed Disease of the Heart to better reflect the dramatic progression John uses in his 1812 scenario, thus:
- Act 1: Arrival in Mexico. Cortés scuppers ships.
- Act 2: Journey inland. Battle and alliance with Tlaxcala.
- Act 3: Tenochtitlan: La Noche Triste.
- Act 4: City destroyed.
The slightest of changes can make a difference.
Gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we – we did not number four hundred soldiers!
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Conquistador
John Keyworth’s game Intrepid Histories is in external playtesting and it’s easy, graceful and rewarding to play.
First we created Divergences for the world in which our version of the Conquest of Mexico (1519-21) was set:-
- Animals have the gift of language.
- Aliens have previously visited the Aztecs.
- Birdpeople of the Mexican isthmus use the thermals of nearby volcanoes to fly.
We chose to add two characters each to the base characters of Hernán Cortés, Doña Marina and Montezuma – this is many more characters than a game of Intrepid Histories really needs, but we were going for the grand sweep of history and a large supporting cast – and narrated a vignette for each of the characters we introduced.
I added the historical character of Pedro de Alvarado – called ‘Tonatio’ or ‘He Who Brings the Day’ by the Mexica (Aztecs) for his shock of red hair – to the ranks of the Conquistadors and Tlillancalqui or ‘The Keeper of the House of Darkness’ to the notables of Tenochtitlan, a bird-priest with whom it very quickly emerged that Cortés had been exchanging secret messages. Simon introduced Geromino de Aguilar, a Conquistador from a previous expedition kept as a slave by local Maya since 1511, and “Il Dottore”, an alcoholic veterinarian from the Spanish colonies in the Italian peninsula. Space Monkey went for Father Sebastio de Huscalia, a pyromaniac priest who was Confessor to Cortés, and Antatechapachtli or “He Who Speaks with Ants”, a Mexican with enormous ears who acted as diplomat for Montezuma.
The game proceeded from here with hardly a break in the flow over about two hours for the three of us. Father Sebastio burned mutineers, heretics and passers-by with equal abandon, Doña Marina stabbed Geromino de Aguilar in the back for trying to warn the Tlaxcalans of Cortés’ forthcoming betrayal at a wedding feast and Antatechapachtli sent pictographic processions of ants back and forth in such a way as to cause the animals to intercede in the Conquest of Mexico. We were both enlivened by the history and utterly surprised by the outcome of the game. You can’t ask for much more than that.
I added four historical events to John’s four-act structure and, much as I’m emotionally attached to the events at Tlaxcala and Cholula during the real-world Conquest, I’ll very likely do away with those and bookend the scenario with the first and last events: Cortés burning his ships to put down a mutiny and the Siege of Tenochtitlan itself. Our siege ended with Aztecs and Conquistadors fighting back-to-back in a losing battle against the insurgency of the animals.
Next, onto the surreal vistas of Itras By.
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.
- 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.