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Author: John Tynes
Cost: Free
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 1999-10-01

Puppetland currently exists in two forms: a book you can buy at the game store, and an HTML file at the site of its author, John Tynes. I have no idea what financial arrangement Tynes has with Hogshead Publishing - that is, whether the book version of Puppetland is owned by him, and thus still an indie, or sold to them. Nor have I played the book version, so it's off limits for this review.

This game - the HTML download - is a good example of a semi-serious knockoff that turned out to be a major innovation. (It's interesting to compare this phenomenon to some huge corporate effort like Alternity that huffs and puffs with thousands of man-hours only to produce something that looks all too familiar.) The premise is simple: you're a puppet, living in Puppetland, which is a magical realm invented by the big Puppet-Maker-guy, which is now a living hell because the puppet Punch killed the Maker and took over. Go!

The purpose of this quick-and-dirty premise is to get away from "realism" and to permit a serious experiment regarding role-playing mechanics. All of Puppetland's rules are Narrativist: how the story is told, the routines and rituals of establishing what happens, and how long it must be. Its innovation is to eliminate, completely, the usual Simulationist foundation for these things.

Here's what I mean. Puppetland really stretches the assumption that what the player announces, the character tries - instead, if you announce it, the character does it. There are no scores or numbers of any kind. Your puppet-PC has a list of things you simply are able to do - jump high, fire the toy pistol built into your fist, foretell the future, dance the funky chicken, etc - as well as things you simply cannot.

You may be resistant to this idea (our assumptions often appear to us, internally, like Natural Law): "Where's the drama if I can't fail?" But it turns out that the other rules, the ones that govern how actions must be phrased, replace the roll-to-hit paradigm quite nicely. You see:
  • the GM must state everything completely in the past - "And the Nutcrackers swarmed forward, rolling their eyes and chomping their dreadful jaws."
  • the players must state everything in character, in the present - "Eek! I bop you, Nutcracker!"
  • possible GM response - "The bopped Nutcracker, addled by the blow, stumbled in circles."
This method is surprisingly effective; you are roleplaying according to an RPG rules system (i.e., it's not a LARP), but without using charts and numbers. The GM says, "And so the puppets traveled until they came to the Sea of Milk and Cookies. My! The waters were wide, deep, and very, well, wet. Slosh, slosh, went the waves." A player says, "I see my boat! It bobs up and down at the edge of the waters." And the GM (who until now was ignorant regarding the boat's existence) runs with that, considering that he or she has the choice of saying, "So they all piled into Caitlin's boat," or "But the boat was burning! The evil Nutcrackers had been there first!" or some such thing.

Puppetland counts as one of the slowly-increasing number of RPGs that require the player to be a mini-GM. (Other examples are Extreme Vengeance, Maelstrom.) In technical terms (borrowed from Everway), what's going on is this: Puppetland removes Fortune entirely from the system, which is also the case for Amber and most of Theatrix, but unlike them, it also removes Karma - comparing any "score" with a difficulty value. It is currently the most extreme Drama-based RPG available.

The other interesting issue in running and playing Puppetland is time. I won't explain in detail, but suffice to say that real time constrains game time in a very interesting way, and the net effect is to support all actions that move the developing story along. Things move fast in this game; there simply isn't any other point to being there except to make the story occur.

How does it work during play? One might be worried about just how much a player can influence by speaking through the puppet, e.g., "Golly, my snorkel set's in my pocket; think I'll put it on." The list of "this puppet can" goes a long way to set the limits for this activity. In the boat-sailing example above, it so happened that Caitlin has "this puppet can sail her boat" in her list, which permitted her action.

By far, the hardest thing is to enforce the correct announcement of actions. My players were very committed to trying something new, but the problem is that the GM is supposed to talk one way and the players another - and they tended to use me as the model and slip into the GM-style. I think that the best bet might be to brief one of the players really well beforehand and use them as the model for the other players (probably by pointing and stern looks) during play.

However, it does work, and it's tremendously fun. You can be a weenie cute li'l finger puppet, a hand puppet, a shadow puppet, or a marionette; you get all sorts of abilities and funny limitations - e.g. Suzy Bop, a boxer hand-puppet in our game, can't do things requiring independent finger motion or remember anyone's name. As mentioned in the text, the idea of an "adventuring party" or "combat effectiveness" in the traditional RPG sense is not especially interesting, so the stories lean toward grim kids' stories, which is the whole idea.

The download-file comes to six or seven pages, and there is not really enough there to sustain a long story unless you want to expand upon the back-story regarding the Maker yourself and probably make a map of some of the realm as well. I haven't tried this, so I only ran a short adventure. It also seems that the surrealism would be hard to sustain over a long series of adventures, but I could be wrong (it would be fun to try). There are no system mechanisms for developing PCs through play, whether the traditional skill-addition or any other way.

These aren't really flaws, though. This is not a game to run for eighty-two sessions, nor is it about improving characters' effectiveness as a form of player victory. Puppetland is essentially a transition-game, built to blow your players' minds, as they see aspects of role-playing work that they never considered before - then you go back to, say, Rifts, and they're staring at the game materials, and one of them says, "Hey... do we really need all these books and initiative rolls and numbers and stuff?"

I've heard a lot of people complain that they really want to GM Amber or Over the Edge, only to encounter fierce resistance from players who can't stand giving up their cherished expertise with a clunky 10-volume game. Puppetland is my first pick for a quickie, "just this once" run that will change these players' perspective for the better.

Review comments:

John Tynes replies:

I enjoyed the review and am delighted your game of Puppetland went well. (I'm also glad you liked Wildest Dreams; that was the book that brought Greg Stolze and I together, my collaborator most recently on Unknown Armies.) To answer your question, people are more than welcome to download the game from my web site. The printed version is expanded by about a third or so, and covers GMing in a little more detail as well as fleshing out some locations in the world and such. It also has some swell illustrations, and I think it's easily worth the $5.95 it costs to buy it. But obviously, even a third larger is still not large, and the game as it appears on my website is good to go and will remain there, I expect, in perpetuity.

Incidentally, I sold the movie rights to Puppetland a couple years ago to Sweetpea Entertainment, the people who are currently doing that Dungeons & Dragons movie. Whether anything comes of that deal remains to be seen.

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