At this year’s Go Play I ran a couple of games on behalf of their designers. One was procedurally fiddly, thematically serious, and a beta that had never been run by anyone but its designer before. The other was light-hearted, mechanically simple, and was already published and available from DriveThruRPG. I was bracing myself for the possibility that I’d fail, hard, at the former, and expecting the latter to be a breeze. The latter was Emma Lloyd’s Human Intelligence.
HI is billed as a ridiculous, quick-to-play comedy. All the PCs are aliens who, unbeknownst to one another, have infiltrated the same human planetary-exploration mission. You are woefully unprepared for espionage, but since everybody on the mission is a secret alien with a hazy idea of what constitutes normal human behaviour, you might be able to get away with it.
HI is fundamentally a prompt-driven game; the major features of the characters and story are derived from a series of print-out card decks, which give short story prompts that the players have to draw inspiration from and elaborate upon. (Most storygames use prompts to some extent, but I tend to think of prompt-driven games as ones where prompts structure the regular action of play.)
Prompts are easy to make but take a lot of skill to balance – prompts need to be suggestive, evocative, specific enough to give some guidance, but flexible enough to allow players to be creative. It seems intuitive that having a big variety of prompts should help, but this really a lot less important than having powerfully evocative, highly flexible prompts. The Quiet Year and Fall of Magic are both popular, heavily prompt-based games, and neither of them really have a huge variety of prompt material. But the prompts they do have are really good, striking a delicate balance between guiding and freeing the player, allowing for radically different possibilities depending on context, inspiration and cross-pollination.
The game is intended to be played with a timer, organising each phase pretty tightly, right down to your breaks:
Set a ten-minute timer for chips and soda. Take this time to put the
finishing touches on your alien IDs, discuss your characters, and start
feeling your way around the roleplay.
This is a break that isn’t a break at all – you’re still doing important fleshing-out work! To my mind a break is a time that players can leave the room without missing anything, a time when you’re discouraged from talking about story in order to let everyone catch their breath. When I’m facilitating storygames I occasionally have to rein in players who get really enthusiastic and start jumping the gun while half the group has gone off to the bathroom – but for the most part it doesn’t come up, because We Don’t Game During Breaks is an automatic assumption of politeness around most of the people I play with. So this rubs me the wrong way. (I probably wouldn’t have this reaction if it wasn’t called a break.)
The other thing is that learning a game while you’re on a timer isn’t hugely practical – you don’t want to pause the game every time you need to check a rule or ask a question. (It would have helped, here, if there was a one-page cheat sheet summarising the structure of play and listing all the timers.) So I ended up not using the timer.
In retrospect, this was a mistake; at least for the core period of play – the sequence of challenges – I suspect the timer is crucial to how Human Intelligence is meant to work. If you give players all the time in the world, they’ll waste a lot of time hemming and hawing over whether it’s the right time to reveal their backstory secrets, when what you mostly want them to be doing is having those secrets come out due to hurried, badly-considered decisions.
A second mistake – I decided to facilitate the game but not play in it. (We had five players and I figured it’d go smoother with four.) This takes some of the stress off the facilitator – it can be hard to switch modes between explaining rules and coming up with in-game ideas. But when players are learning a new game, they tend to look to the facilitator for cues about play behaviour. You’re not just there to explain the rules: you’re there to set the tone, get the ball rolling, provide an example. So, that one’s entirely on me.
A really common issue I see in storygames: in games where setting isn’t a central focus, it often gets neglected to the point where players are uncertain of their world, but aren’t given the space and structure to build it. Uncertainty about how a fictional world works is a huge impediment to creative roleplaying. Often a storygame will have a section in setup along the lines of ‘take a few minutes to talk over any other questions you’ve got about the world’, and I always see this as a bit of a warning sign – the game expects you to do work here, but isn’t going to support you through it.
And sometimes that’s OK! The times when it’s best are generally when it concerns the beating heart of What the Game’s About, the thing that has to be kinda difficult because that’s where the creative magic happens. The final stage of prep in Fiasco, where you’ve laid out all the character connections and have to parse them into actual characters and situations, is the most obvious example: it can be really tough, because you have a lot of freedom to interpret what things actually mean, but it’s also a puzzle to make everything fit nicely into a coherent whole that everybody’s excited to play.
When it’s not so good is when it’s something you need to get a grasp on the game, but it’s not obviously central to What the Game’s About – setting is the most common culprit. And I think that HI has a bit of trouble with this. On the one hand, it’s got some decent genre touchstones – HHGtG wackiness, Star Trek away missions – but these are themselves kinda loosy-goosy templates. The game emphasises that your characters don’t really know that much about humanity – but this highlights that the players don’t really know much about their alien cultures.
And this is largely due to a much broader issue: players do most of their character-creation in secret. Setup is one of the places in storygames where collaborative creativity really gets a chance to shine; even in games which don’t have explicit co-operative character creation, you get to share your character with the group and get some feedback and reassurance that you’re on the right track. You get to let the other players know who your character is, so that they can riff on that in future. In a lot of games, by the time you’ve done setup your players are hopping up and down about how great everything you’ve made together is. That energy helps get them over the initial hump of figuring out regular play, and talking about their character concept out loud helps them elaborate and refine on it.
I really enjoy RPGs about secrets and lies and mystery, but I feel like that’s a thing that is much better done by prep-intensive trad or LARP games. The approaches more usual in storygames are to either a) make up the mystery as you go along, as in Monsterhearts or InSpectres, or b) play open-hand, sharing all your secrets out-of-character and keeping that very separate from in-character knowledge. So HI’s central conceit is fundamentally an unusual thing, and one that’s difficult to pull off; doubly so because it’s a prompt-based game, and prompts live or die on spoken-out-loud elaboration.
Ultimately my feeling was that HI‘s prompts were pretty solid hooks when it came to the Backstory stuff that remains hidden, but not all that inspiring on the Cover and Challenge cards that get shared – which is fair, because your characters don’t really care too much about that stuff. (Our actual mission, the stuff folks were ostensibly doing while trying to maintain their identities, developed the feeling of a bad off-the-cuff D&D session, a sequence of random encounters that didn’t cohere into a story.) HI wants to keep its best material concealed, because the moment it’s really invested in is the surprise and ridiculousness and bluster when the secrets come out – but that moment kind of gets undermined. You’re not encouraged to get very invested in your cover – it’s just a bad tropey cover identity that you know is going to fall apart anyway! – but you don’t have the opportunity to workshop your secret identity into something great, either.
I’m not entirely confident about these conclusions, of course, because I fucked up some other critical elements of the game. It’s probable that some of the issues were, at the very least, exacerbated by slower play that gave players time to indulge their choice-paralysis – possibly faster play would have encouraged a more Munchausen-ish, wild-abandon style. And (this is a thing I try to remind people a lot) storygames are always risky; there’s always the possibility for a session to go badly without it being down to a flaw in the game or a failure of the players. But I still came away from this with the strong feeling that secret-info and elaborate-from-prompts do not play nice together.
Finally: if you ask people to secretly draw an alien, three out of four of them will probably draw some kind of wobbly octopus. (This caused some speculation about backstory, post-game – why is the wobbly octopus the dominant body-shape of galactic species? was there an ancient wobbly-octopus dispersal event?)
(I reviewed this game at the author’s request, and received a free review copy.)