Jan 102014

The scene reunited for the first time in 2014 at the Boardroom last night:  Alissa, Owen, Sam, Nat, and Joshua.  At first Sam had us all participate in an experiment – testing a phrase building ritual which he might perhaps work into his next great story game project.  We don’t know. Only time will tell.  I think consensus was that it was entertaining on its own, though we’d like to see it in an actual game.

Having done our bit for science, we settled in for a fine session of Joe Mcdaldno’s The Quiet Year. This is a game about telling the story of a community and recording it’s history on a collaborative map.  I really like this kind of game.  Talking with others at the end I think I might have liked it the most. Let me rehash the story as best as I can recal from my own POV (others please add, amend and correct as needed)>

We decided our community was located in a little hidden valley surrounded by mountains.  Several mountain streams, some crashing through steep gorges, came together to form a river that flowed through the valley and then disappeared into an abandoned strip mine.  Our community was centred around a forested area  where two largest streams finally came together. We struggled at the beginning with a scarcity of meat, fresh water, electricity and industry but were blessed with an abundance of faith.  Faith was never completely defined but it seemed to manifest itself throughout the game most often in very practical exercises of devotion.  Often in the form of carefully tended ornamental gardens.  These gardens were said to help “purify” the land though as a player I remained skeptical about whether this was ever anything more than a symbolic form of purification.  Certainly no obvious physical effects were ever revealed. The abundance of faith early seemed to originate with the community elders who frequently required assistance to travel to a monastery partway up a mountain, and across some deadly gorges, in order to worship or something.  Later it became apparent that worship consisted mainly of gardening.

The major drama in the spring and summer revolved around our relations with another community who camped around the abandoned strip mine mentioned above. Things got off to a bad start when we decided to dam the river upstream of them and got worse when the discovered us salvaging (stealing) a large turbine from an area they considered their territory.  This lead to a series of small skirmishes, the development of a militia, the desecration of  some sort of peace garden, and only really ended with the assassination of their leaders by the charismatic and religiously fervent Alice from our community.

The biggest tension within the community (again from my POV as a player) was between those who rejected all spirituality and trappings of religions and saw faith, as well as all religious observance as hindrance to the advancement of industry and order; against those who sought to preserve the old ways and believed that doing so preserved the land as well as the essential dignity of all humans.

By winter the communities industrial projects were moving along at a frightening pace.  Electricity was readily available.  Meat and tomatoes were being produced on an industrial scale. The remaining members of the mining community were being coerced into a life of servitude, providing an indentured class of labourers to serve our further schemes.  On the other hand faith if not actually in scarcity was certainly under threat. The elders had been all but abandoned to starvation in the mountains, (there were even reports of cannibalism).  Religion, when it was still practised, took on a radical new look.  (See for example the large phallic symbol erected in the middle of the map. )  I cannot help but wonder if there weren’t some of us who greeted the Frost Shepherds with relief as bringing about an end to such a cold and utilitarian society.

My thoughts about the game.  The rules strongly discourage table talk or any form of collaboration or discussion outside the formal “hold a discussion” action.  I feel we were rather strident with this guideline and as such the game was more jovial and included plenty of entertaining banter.  I am still curious however to see how the game feels if the silence is more faithfully observed. The greatest fun for me came out of the use of contempt tokens.  We 20 pennies for this purpose and for a good portion of the game.. and right until the end, they were ALL in use.  The contempt tokens as we used them, and this might not be strictly correct according to Joe’s rules, became an engine for ‘character development’ in a game without characters.  Let me explain (all of course from my own point of view, others might have had a different experience).  I started taking contempt tokens when the community started religious projects, or offered pacifist solutions to problems with our rivals.  I’d even take one when I heard these sentiments expressed during discussions.  This led to me having quite an accumulation by the end of Summer. The other unexpected consequence was that I became more and more committed to a warlike and ultra-pragmatic almost fascist view of the community.  Without ever identifiying with a particular character I started to feel like I was role-playing a vague faction or even almost a personified ideology.  I also started to see the other players in a similar light.  Based on their contributions, discussion comments and especially projects I came to identify each other player with a world view and vision for the community.  Owen was probably the most opposite, being I felt an advocate for increased spirituality and reconciliation both with our environment and outside communities. Sam seemed in alignment with me with regard to pushing for industrialization but we were opposed on almost all matters of social policy.  I was definitely in Alissa’s camp on military matters but we didn’t always agree.   Two things make these differences interesting to me:  (1) the fact that we can identify these different agendas even though there was never a venue for declaring them specifically and no way to directly challenge or oppose each other. (2) the fact that they arose not out of my own biases or even out a a conscious decision to play as a certain character.  Perhaps “start a discussion” is one of the most important elements in the game.   Although it appears to have no visible effect on the game (unlike “discover something new” or “start a project”), it is the one action that contains some role play.  During a discussion and whenever we take a contempt token, we reinforce the existence of a certain collection of beliefs, intentions, and desires.  These are all elements of character but without a physical form. If we played a more strictly orthodox version of the game with zero table talk I hypothesize that these disembodied ‘characters’ would become even more real and defined.

All in all, I found this one of the most INTERESTING games I’d played in a while.


 Posted by at 2:50 pm
  • Nat Egan-Pimblett

    I’ll reiterate that keeping table talk to a minimum is really important. This is a neat game (I’m kind of in love with “society building” games like this one and Kingdom), but definitely not for the faint of heart. The intention and presence you’d need to get the most out of it is kind of staggering.

  • Here’s a discussion on story-games.net about Contempt Tokens.

  • Joshua Bearden

    Sam thanks for pointing that thread out. I decided to jump in and report on our game. In doing so I added the following reflection on contempt token…

    “…To me [contempt tokens] feel like karma as the term is used in early Buddhist scriptures – a representation of unfulfilled desire, frustration, and existential pain. In that religion when we strip away the ephemeral aspects of character and personality only the karma remains. This goes a long way in my mind to explaining how contempt tokens support rich and dramatic role-playing in a game without characters.”