So in one of my classes, the first assignment was to write an "entertainment analysis of an emotionally moving entertainment event you attended." Examples given were things like plays, concerts, and movies. Instead of a movie or something passive, I decided to write up the session of 1001 Nights I played in at GenCon. I tried to focus on the emotional impact of the game, so there's a lot about reward systems. I also explained a lot of background, since I assumed that my professor knows little to nothing about the indie rpg scene.
This year I attended GenCon, a convention that bills itself as "The Best Four Days in Gaming." I met up with several people I befriended online, putting names to faces. I spent most of my time trying out new story games, games that focus on people getting together to create a story. (Story games grew out of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, but have a different enough focus to warrant another name.) Friday night, the second night of the convention, I played the story game 1001 Nights with several of my friends.
1001 Nights is a story game with an Arabian Nights theme. The players take on the roles of members of a sultan's court, whom the sultan prevents from leaving. To pass the time, and to make veiled commentary on each other, members of the court tell stories and cast each other in roles from the story. Through the game, players try to achieve short-term ambitions or win free of the sultan's court without angering him.
To start the game, players choose from several possible roles, such as "The sultan's youngest wife," "The gardener," or "The hostage prince." They then describe their characters in terms of the five senses. Finally, players choose one other character they envy, explaining why, and one short-term ambition their characters are trying to achieve.
One of the players describes a scene in the sultan's court. For a little while, players narrate and play their roles, until one of them asks to be told a story. Another player comes up with a title for the story, and casts the other players in roles for the story; this player is the "storyteller." Casting is an opportunity to probe or make commentary on a character's relationship to the other characters. In our game, one of the sultan's older wives, who resented being ignored for a younger wife, was cast as a sultan concerned for his sick wife. The players then narrate and act out parts in the story, following rules that help guide the narration.
To guide the narration, players other than the storyteller say "I wonder if X will happen," pick a "gem" (die) out of the collective bowl, and put it in front of them. One of the questions that came up in when we played was "I wonder if the sultana is in love with any of the doctors?" If a player's question is answered, whether in the affirmative or negative, the player gets to roll the die. If the question is never answered, becomes impossible to answer, or is forgotten by the player, the die is put back in the collective bowl. When rolled, if the die comes up even, the player puts it in her personal bowl; if it's odd, the storyteller puts it in hers. This is the only way the storyteller can earn gems, since she cannot make "I wonder" statements. After the story reaches a conclusion, everybody rolls all the dice in their bowls. Depending on the results of the die rolls, characters might get closer to achieving their ambitions or freedom. If the dice turn up badly, the character angers the sultan,
When we played the game, there were six people, which is a larger group than the game was designed for. This meant that the storyteller played a less active role than the designer intended, and also made it a little hard to keep track of characters. Two people chose to play as wives of the sultan, one was the court astronomer, one the head gardener, and I was the perfumer. I'm afraid I do not remember what role the sixth person played, since it did not come up in the story. The story we told
together was titled "The False Doctors." I, the astronomer, and the gardener, were cast as three false doctors. The younger of the sultan's wives was cast as a sultana who was pretending to be sick. The elder of the sultan's wives was cast as the sultan who had called the doctors to cure his wife. The sixth person was the storyteller.
We dug into the story with gusto. I quickly put on the table the question "I wonder if the sultana is in love with any of the doctors?" Someone else put down "I wonder if the doctors know that the penalty for quackery is death?" I was somewhat disappointed when the player of the sultana made it clear she was not in love with any of the doctors, but the theme of romance carried on throughout the story. One player with the role of a false doctor had his character give the sultana a love note, which when discovered brought on the wrath of the sultan. My perfumer character envied the gardener for "stealing the sultan's nose," so I brought that in by having my doctor try to cure the sultana with flowers. When the doctors' efforts to cure the his wife failed, the sultan ordered his guards in to execute the quacks. However, one of the doctors was able to talk to the sultana in private, and learned that she was longing for the man her husband had been when they married. By this time, it was clear that the story was drawing to a close, and the storyteller's bowl was growing full.
To save himself, and to help the sultana, the doctor who discovered the truth of the sultana's "ailment" suggested that the sultan go on a quest for the water of a faraway spring. On the table was the question, "I wonder if the journey will restore the sultan to the man the sultana loves?" I put down, "I wonder if any of the doctors will accompany the sultan on his journey," which was quickly picked up by the person controlling the sultan's character. She had the sultan order the doctor who had written the love note to accompany him, keeping him away from the sultana. Answering the question, "Do any of the doctors die," the person whose doctor had written the love note had his doctor sacrifice himself during the journey, allowing the sultan to reach the spring. The person controlling the sultan responded by saying that the sultan saw the sacrifice and forgave the doctor. Back at the palace, another question on the table was "Does the sultana grow to love the sultan again in his absence?" The person controlling the sultana grabbed that suggestion, and narrated that yes, she did. Another question on the table was "Do any of the doctors love the sultana?" The player whose doctor had suggested the journey, but stayed behind, narrated that his doctor did fall in love with the sultana. It was hopeless, of course, since the sultana was in love with another man. So he ended his story by saying that the doctor left the kingdom, having taken his patient's sickness into himself, which was the only way he knew to cure disease.
I was strongly engaged with the story, although my character did not play a very active part. I think the process of putting down questions to be answered was an extremely effective way to guide player input to the story. In many story and role-playing games, players are told that they can "do anything." The usual result is that players spend a lot of time groping around to find something interesting that everyone can engage with. In 1001 Nights, when someone puts down a question, that means it is an issue he or she is interested in. Even if the question is answered in the negative, the fact that the question was answered at all means that the other players also found the topic interesting. When we played, I put down several questions, guiding the story with suggestions rather than through the actions of my character.
In many role-playing games, there is a strong emphasis on playing a single character, the way an actor plays a role. Players can only add to the game through the lenses of their characters. I find this very stressful. In 1001 Nights, however, the process of putting questions on the table gave me other means of input, and let me view the story from a role more like that of a writer than of an actor. It also made me more willing to take risks; it costs basically nothing to put down a question, and there is very clear positive feedback when other people find it interesting.
When I played 1001 Nights, it was not an emotional experience in the sense that it moved me tears. What I felt at the end was a strong sense of satisfaction. Together we had taken a very sketchy situation, and turned it into a story with a clear, fulfilling ending. I walked away from the game with a sense of accomplishment and pride, and a feeling that everyone else at the table was someone I would be happy to collaborate with.
Selene, this is awesome! Please repost it in Actual Play!!