Awright. Going over some of the more noteworthy things I played at Go Play NW this year:
The Mind of Margaret (Drew Besse) is a storygame in which the players all play different emotions (or other motivating drives) of a single character. The protagonist goes through a succession of dilemmas, with players switching which emotion they represent for each dilemma.
This is not a radically original concept – it’s been done before and in other games; I’ve prototyped similar things myself – but it’s a tricky one to get right on a couple of levels. Most immediately, it’s a setup that requires some kind of mechanical conflict resolution – you can’t just go with freeform assumptions about player-character autonomy, because you’re all determining the choices of the same person. That conflict resolution ought to be at least somewhat balanced, interesting and reflective of what’s going on at the table, while remaining simple enough to avoid bogging play down.
Margaret succeeds here because it manages to keep things simple and quick-moving. The game is structured around dilemmas, but debate and conflict over them isn’t strung out very far; each emotion states its case, there’s some brief discussion, and then you vote, with everyone rolling a d6 in support of one of two options – so the more popular option usually wins but isn’t guaranteed. This format lets you get in quite a few dilemmas within a game. (There’s a tie-resolution mechanic which makes it slightly less likely that the same emotion will always predominate, although in a five-player game this doesn’t come up very often.)
Margaret seems like an excellent game for storygame novices: it has straightforward rules, introduces a lot of key elements of narrative control and player internality, and its setup time is pretty quick. It doesn’t have any sticking-points where things get substantially more challenging. It’s pretty easy to act in-character – you don’t have to realise a complete, complex person, just one aspect of them, and the game gives you space to be ridiculous or over-the-top without necessarily messing up the story. The emotion-swapping means that you won’t get stuck all game in a role that you’re not clicking with, while still allowing you to focus a bit more on roles you do enjoy.
The general premise is one that requires careful handling around the obvious connection to schizophrenia and so-called multiple personality disorder, and particularly the sensationalist and artistically-convenient versions thereof beloved of popular media. (Everybody is John, an earlier mini-RPG that I wasn’t aware of until I started writing this up, played this for comedy in a way that’s pretty gross.) Mind of Margaret doesn’t actively encourage this madsploitation approach, but there isn’t a lot in the text to alert players to these issues, either. In its current situation – it’s a free pdf-only game, and most people who’ve played it have either done so with the author or people who’ve learned it from him – that’s probably not as big a deal, since it can lean on community practice. But I’d still have liked this to be a bit more directly addressed.
(Speaking of games learned by direct transmission, we managed to completely ignore the Memory mechanic, in which you narrate scenes from the protagonist’s past which were particularly formative for one of the emotions. The game works fine without it, but it seems like a useful tool for if you’re wanting to develop more concrete characters.)
With the right players and the right expectations, I can see a session of Margaret going in more sombre or serious directions; I suspect its default mode is more likely to lean towards goofy comedy, and it’s ideal if you want to play an Adorable Screw-up. Because non-player characters aren’t directly played – they only show up in narration, and don’t have any mechanics supporting them – it’s less effective at depicting nuanced relationships, and it’s easy to make NPCs into simple love-objects, foils or followers. (Our group talked a little about the possibility of playing coordinated games with two or more protagonists, conferring separately but acting together; this might require rather more planning, but I’m interested in that.)