In the post Introducing: Questo, I mentioned that I got my first taste of large-audience roleplaying at PAX Unplugged 2018. That was also my first full con experience. I got to game with some incredible heroes of mine and make some new friends. It was a pretty great weekend. So while the rest of the gaming world is in Indianapolis this week for that other con, I’m going to reminisce about PAX.
There were two events on the schedule that I took up for research purposes. I knew I wanted to see how folks from the gaming sphere took on the challenges of performing. I was also grateful to have the opportunity to see the show from the audience’s side. The two events were:
Today I’m going to focus on To Serve Her Wintry Hunger because it most directly impacted my work on Questo and gave me a bunch of takeaways for bringing a game to a large audience. I saw a specific approach to running a full room through a small storygame, and I also experienced first hand what is fun for an audience in that setup. It was a cool event and made me an instant fan of Stephen Dewey.
Dewey is the Game Designer and Publisher of Calvary Games. He is probably best known for his game Ten Candles, a certified indie darling game of tragic horror that uses a mechanic based around ten actual candles. I haven’t had the chance to play it yet so I won’t pitch it to you just yet. Ask me again after PAX Unplugged 2019. I will pitch the hell out of To Serve Her Wintry Hunger, because the game is wonderful, and watching Dewey pilot that room of controlled chaos was a huge inspiration and constant touchstone during Questo design.
In To Serve Her Wintry Hunger, players take on the role of one of four mischievous spirits out hunting a human in a deep dark wintry wood. The spirits are petty, spiteful braggarts and lend themselves to lots of fun roleplaying trying to outdo the other spirits. The game itself is very light mechanically, and the plot is simple, so the focus of play is mainly on expressing these different elemental spirits.
Dewey was up front about the challenge of playing this game with an entire room of people. He knew that the kind of individual, poetic expression the game lends itself to wouldn’t be possible for all of us. And he told us that, right out of the gate. He let us know, ‘hey, we’re not going to try and play this game the way it’s intended. We’re not going to try and force it to work.’ Instead he said that he would guide us through the game, and rather than giving us blank canvas, he’d be providing tailored options, but we would still get to choose what to do.
He managed this by splitting the audience into four sections and gave each section one of the spirits to play: Fire, Cold, Fear or Hunger. He pitted these spirits against each other, and as anyone who has been to Medieval Times can tell you, arbitrary rivals are just as good as actual rivals. Each spirit then had their own language of approval; Fire would crackle, Fear would shriek. When our characters had a decision to make, Dewey would give us two options and then let the section cast their vote. This worked because he didn’t tell us what to say or ask for a simple “yea” response. He invited us to perform the character’s approval through their specific language, a language that he described but ultimately we invented. My favorite person from the game, for example, was one guy in the Fire section who would speak a deadpan “crackle crackle, crackle crackle” whenever he cast his voice for the spirit.That was the version that made the game fun for him. The invitation to invent allowed us to access our own expression in the game even though Dewey was providing all the prompts.
When working on Questo, we call this technique “picking the channel, but giving them the volume.” We have to take the infinite possible space of a role-playing game and narrow the options down to specific tracks. However, we also need to give the players a sense of freedom in collaborating with us on the story. Taking the lesson from To Serve Her Wintry Hunger, we give the players specific, controlled points where they impact the story, and then aim to give them full freedom in how much they commit to that choice. It isn’t a simple binary choice of “do something daring or do something clever,” it becomes the full spectrum between the most death-defying stunt and the most uncanny discovery. This lets players find fun in the expression of these options more than the decision, and it lets us track the story that our players enjoy creating with us.
Stephen Dewey had several other great instincts about turning a game into theatre. He was a dedicated, generous storyteller. He knew when to let things not be too serious, and also when to make things way-more-serious-than-necessary. If a random person rolled a random die and got a result that was randomly wrong, the only appropriate response was abject shame. This gave the rest of the crowd a way to play that moment too. I’m very grateful I was in the room to witness both his playfulness and engineering with this game. You can find the game at his website here, and if you have a chance to play it with him live, please give it a spin.