Go Play NW is a Seattle-based con for playing games; there’s an emphasis on indie and narrative-oriented role-playing games, but there are usually some board and card games in the mix. I love it because, not having any vendors, it’s heavily designed around play, not consumption: a game distributed as a two-page, free PDF is on the same level as a blockbuster product from a major company. I love it because it structures your activity, and I really don’t enjoy the wander-about-and-browse aspect of cons. And I love it because you get introduced to weird games that you hadn’t heard of before.
Cheat Your Own Adventure is a super-light storygame. The author (Shane McLean) describes it as a game poem, although it doesn’t match up particularly well with what I associate with the term, mostly as explored by Harry Giles, except perhaps insofar as it implies shortness and simplicity. Some of the folks I played it with were put in mind of Action Castle, but it’s a lot more participatory and no-prep than that.
The premise is that you’re playing through a paper-and-ink CYOA book, and you’re perfectly willing to cheat – to pretend to have inventory items that you never heard of before, for instance, or to keep your finger in the page in case you choose a bad option. You choose a book title (by default, something that evokes cod-fantasy; we went with The Winds of Eternity) and start narrating a story in second person, off the cuff. After a paragraph or so, you stop and the other players offer options: “if you fight the troll princess, turn to page 65”, and so on. The current player chooses an option, and narration passes to the player who offered it.
At this point you roll dice; on a pass, the new player continues the story and solicits new choices, and on a fail they must narrate a failure ending and return to the previous set of choices. The original has 2d6 and a 1-12 difficulty rating that rises over the course of play, with the game ending once you succeed at a difficulty-12 check. There’s obvious fertile ground for simple hacks to get the game experience you want, though; we played with a d12 for a more finishable game, and I can imagine people wanting to play with a different difficulty level, or no mechanically determined ending, or no deaths. I suspect a no-dice, no-required-conclusion version would be suitable for car journeys or hiking.
We played with a relatively large group – the original suggests that 4-5 players is ideal, and we had about 8, which led to some disparity in who got to contribute. We played it after dinner on the second day of the con: it was (by Seattle’s relatively mild standards) a hot and muggy day, and we were variously tired, creatively and socially drained, and tipsy. It’s kind of an ideal game for that situation. There is little expectation of narrative coherence, and not a whole lot of pressure to come up with something awesome on the spot. And it makes you laugh together. It was hugely cheering with relatively little effort.
The caveat, of course, is that this was a group of people strongly self-selected for an interest in telling extemporaneous stories. From playing other super-light storygames (Gloom, Once Upon a Time) in more general gamer contexts, I tend to expect that at least one person in a group will turn out to be really uncomfortable with that, but feel socially obliged to keep playing – which is a crap experience for them and tends to bring the group down. This happens even when you issue warnings. (One of the biggest challenges of tabletop, I think, is making sure that all the players really want to be playing the same game.) The good news is that Cheat Your Own Adventure is pretty resilient: we had players drop out and jump in, and it made very little difference.
Much of the pleasure of the game comes from the outlandishly mismatched list of options, rather than the chosen narrative itself. Since the game puts cheating front and centre, there’s a good deal of encouragement for meta elements; our game featured a series which included a lot of options for switching back and forth between different books with rather different subject-matter, presumably as a particularly obnoxious form of cross-promotion, and the possibilities this conjured were more interesting than the mildly wacky hero’s-journey plot.
Action tends to occur at the scene-to-scene scale of classic Choose Your Own Adventure, and having a straightforward genre plot to follow helps. I can see the right group of people playing this with a less gonzo theme, or at least a more consistent one – Pretty Little Mistakes springs to mind – but producing a story that stands up in its own right is very much not the strength of the system.