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Author: Matt Machell
Cost: Free
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2002-03-08

We played Matt Machell's Bedlam on a regular game night while waiting for one of the players to show up. It's a parlor game, really, very much along the lines of a classic social game like Charades or Pictionary - its direct roots are Balderdash, Once Upon a Time, and The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen.

So we could go all 'round about whether it's a role-playing game or not, but since that discussion would also include two of the games named above, as well as the card game Slasher and the table-top game Pantheon, why don't we just bag that discussion and move on? Bedlam is a free two-pager available on-line, and characters, events, and stuff get imaginatively generated in play. I'm gonna review it anyway, RPG or not, so huck-ptooey.

Bedlam is Gamist. It's about winning, which requires some combination of a good vocabulary, an innocent expression when that vocabulary fails you, an appreciation of Dr. Evil and all the characters inspiring that character, and some cunning strategizing over the primary resource of play. All of these things are embodied in the single game mechanic, called "keywords," which are little slips of paper with words written on them. Everyone writes ten keywords from the dictionary, they all get shuffled in a basket, and everyone draws six to start.
To summarize briefly, each player plays an incarcerated criminal mastermind (at least in his own mind); you are trying to one-up one another regarding your exploits, much like Baron von M, and the goal is to clean out your "hand" of keywords by using them in your narration, much like Once Upon a Time. The point is that people can challenge (Veto) your use of a given keyword, much like Balderdash, and get control of the narration. Other modes of interfering (Divert, Thwart) exist as well, allowing for slightly different strategies; most of the options involve hosing the speaker with the need to pick up more keywords.

Does this strike anyone as fun and entertaining? If not, then I fear for you. The idea is hilarious and inspires much terrifying creativity, whether in imaginative raving, snivelling self-justification, contempt for the paltry fumblings of the other characters, bizarre plots, and frustration at the intervention of incredibly annoying heroes ("Captain Midnight" in our case).

The next question is how well it works. At this point, I think Bedlam is about 80% baked: as text, it needs some clarifications and as a game, it needs one major decision to be made. Given those, I'll happily adopt it as a fine parlor kinda-RPG, right up there with Once Upon a Time and a little easier to learn and play.

Baking: five things
I strongly suggest that a failed Veto carry a penalty for the challenger, which would sensibly seem to be picking up one Keyword.

Do all used keywords go back into the basket, regardless of whether it was challenged or un-challenged? That seemed reasonable to us, but the rules don't say.

We quickly adopted the house rule of letting whoever is speaking finish their sentence, and incorporating that sentence into the "history of the villains" no matter what. In other words, if I am the new Narrator, and I use my Keyword "alioth" in my first sentence, and if that gets challenged, my sentence (a) needs to be completed and (b) remains as part of play. The reason for this is if someone challenges me the moment "alioth" is out of my mouth - basically cutting me off short - then play becomes much less fun. We all now have less to work with in terms of what's been stated as "story so far," and strategic play now includes the tactic of simply cutting people off rather than focusing on the crazy applications of Keywords. The house rule worked quite well (it's taken from Once Upon a Time) and I suggest that it be included as a basic rule.

Can you use a keyword when Diverting, Thwarting, and Vetoing? It seems like a reasonable thing to allow, although it could get confusing if the Keyword gets challenged (i.e., the challenge-ee is not the Narrator). The only issue I'd have with it, if this is permitted, is that a player with only one Keyword left can instantly win simply by Diverting, which seems kind of lame in story terms - you end up with the final sentence of the "story" being something like, "Isn't that when Captain Midnight bifurcated your sidekick?" and stopping there.

The minor role of "the Doctor" is mighty useful for prompting more meaning out of somone's overly-ambiguous use of the words, and we liked it a lot. One thing I don't really understand is why any one person has to be "the Doctor" (note: I realize that one is not limited to that role during play). It seems perfectly all right for any non-Narrator, in the Doctor's voice, to ask to ask for clarification or to prompt in any way. In other words, the Doctor would be more of a floating presence rather than under any given player's "control." That would also solve the semi-puzzling instructions about how the Doctor role changes relative to how the Narrator role changes.

Incidentally, during play, I was the starting Doctor and chose, as my question, "So are you ready to talk about your mother today?" That turned out to be a doozy and I recommend it highly.

Finally, I suggest borrowing another page from Once Upon a Time and specifying that a final Keyword's use must be incorporated into narrated content that actually resolves something, much in the same sense that the final, winning sentence in Once Upon a Time is actually the ending of the story and must be acceptable as such. I don't suggest an actual equivalent to that game's "Ending Cards," as Bedlam (it seems to me) doesn't really need to be wholly coherent to be fun, but some degree of ending-ness or climax-ness to the use of one's final Keyword seems like a good idea.

The big decision: voting vs. definition
The single over-riding issue I have with playing Bedlam is the standard by which a Veto challenge succeeds. As written, a challenge is decided by voting. We found this unsatisfying, and switched to a dictionary-check approach. As it turned out, that wasn't wholly what we wanted either. So the best I can do is outline the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches.

Say I'm narrating and I use the word "latakia" from my little stash of Keywords as follows: "Even now I can smell the light, fluffy, crispy latakia my mother baked in our kitchen - she told me, as I munched them, 'Little Arnie,' she said - she is the only one to call me Arnie - 'Never joggle the nitroglycerine bottles.'" And then Dav challenges me on "latakia," claiming that I have utilized it in some kind of inappropriate way.

Using the voting option (which is what currently stands in the rules), everyone besides me and Dav now votes on whether I am quite reasonable in its use or, well, full of shit. The good side to this approach is much like Balderdash - it's based on both the various individuals' actual vocabularies and on the challenge-ee's ability to keep a straight face. The down side, it seems to me, is that a person can always be prevented from winning simply by the voters saying "No," which would lead to a perpetual game.

A minor downside to the voting approach is that it requires a minimum number of players (5), and that the number must be odd to avoid ties.

Using the definition option simply means opening up the dictionary to resolve any Veto. If the use of the word was inaccurate, there you go, a successful Veto. One interesting good side to this approach applies if you are always putting Keywords back in the basket, meaning, they end up being re-used. Therefore all of the Keywords become more and more known across the group, making the chances of successful Veto drop as play progresses. It sets up a nice endgame characterized by more Diverts and Thwarts - i.e., more interesting stories start emerging.

The downside to this approach is that it minimizes the "bullshit artist" element of play, which is sort of a bummer.

I suppose that an intermediate option exists, in which the challenge-ee is able to contest a voted decision by referring to the dictionary, but if that's going on, why not just skip to the dictionary in the first place? Perhaps the best compromise is to go by the voting, but the challenge-ee gets the dictionary-defense only if the Keyword in question is the final (i.e. potentially winning) one in his stash.

I very strongly suggest that the game needs this issue clarified. Vote, definition, or some combination? And how exactly does it work?

Overall, Bedlam turns out to be a dandy game. It's a bit less nuanced or ending-oriented than Once Upon a Time, but far more instantly-playable than either The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen or Pantheon (both of which I find too laborious). I also think that, as with all of the games mentioned in this review, it does a great job of instilling skills and habits of play that turn out to be a lot of fun when they show up during "regular" role-playing. Given the baking and the resolution of my main concern, I'll adopt it as a solid member of the light & insightful toolbox of short-games I carry about with me.

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