Tales by the Fire

A game for 3-5 players, the stone and the fire.

You are hunters. It is 30.000 years ago. You have walked all day without spotting prey. You are tired and worried. You must tell tales by the fire. 

Prehistoric cave painting at the  Petta kere cave in the Leang-leang Prehistoric Park (Maros regency in South Sulawesi, Indonesia).  These hand stencils belong to the Mesolithic  Toalean ( Tolian) culture (6000BC to 500AD). Photo:  Sanjay P. K. (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Prehistoric cave painting at the Petta kere cave in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. These hand stencils belong to the Mesolithic Toalean (Tolian) culture (6000BC to 500AD). Photo: Sanjay P. K. (Flickr/Creative Commons).

The fire can be represented by a simple candle. If you are outside in the woods, you can build a fire (if the season and local laws permits). 

If you need food during the game: no processed foods. Fruit, berries, dried meat, nuts. There is no cheese or bread. If you need drink, there’s water in a stream nearby.

Give each other names. Names foreign to your own tongue. When you are given a name, explain what it means.

You are hunters. Far from home. Back there, those who cannot hunt and those who have other responsibilities wait. This winter, they depend on your safe return. They are all the other human beings you know of.

Language is new, it has great power. Be careful what you say, which words you choose for the tale. It’s better to wait for the right words than to babble like a stream. Words create ripples, like a stone cast in a lake. They conjure images. Bind spirits. Wake powers.

There is taboo. There is the sacred. Be careful, but brave.

If someone uses the wrong words, make sounds. Hiss. Grunt. Maybe you have to shout or roar, to drive the badness off.

If the right words are used, nod and smile. Say “mm”, “oo”, “aa”.

Pick up a stone from the ground. Whoever holds the stone has entered the tale. This takes great courage. You are the hunters. You are brave. The stoneholder keeps her eyes closed while telling the others what she sees. But the others are not passive. They make sounds. Ask questions.

The stone is passed on to the next hunter when the time is right. Take your time telling. This is important.

Remember you have walked all day, and not spotted prey. Remember there is terrible darkness on the horizon. Remember that the whole of human society depends on you.

Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf), c. 28,000-25,000 B.C.E., Limestone, 4 1/4" high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna), photo: Steven Zucker  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Nude Woman (Venus of Willendorf), c. 28,000-25,000 B.C.E., Limestone, 4 1/4″ high (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna), photo: Steven Zucker
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The hunter holding the stone closes her eyes. You begin humming together, to let the stoneholder enter the tale. Finding the same frequency. Adding sounds. Using vowels. Humming. Then the song dies down.

All tales begin by asking the stoneholder: “what do you see?” She need not answer at once. Maybe the question has to be repeated by you all. In one voice. Imploring, begging. The tale is important. It will help the hunt.

As the stoneholder relates, the other hunters may ask questions. “Where are you?” “Why did…?” “Who enters?” “What does it say?”. The stoneholder may or may not answer, taking her time telling.

The stone is passed to the next hunter when the time is right.

During Tales by the Fire, beings and spirits from the tale have been known to escape, and enter a hunter who holds no stone. It is rare, but it happens. The entity will speak with the hunter’s tongue. Grin with his mouth. Stare with his eyes.

These beings have great power. It is important to listen and treat them with respect. Until they have said their piece and are ready to leave.

Tales by the Fire is dangerous, but important to the hunt. It is something we must do.

The tale is over when the fire burns out, or when one of you decides it’s time to put out the fire.

Inspired by: What is a Roleplaying Game by Epidiah Ravachol and recent conversations.

Thanks to Torgny, Vivian and others for feedback.

Photo:  Craig Kohtz (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Photo: Craig Kohtz (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Welcome to Nørway

Photo: Snarglebarf

Photo: Snarglebarf

On this site, you’ve found an eclectic sample of Norwegian role-playing games, game poems and blog post in English since 2007.

Over the years, a lot of posts have accumulated. It can be a bit confusing: where to begin?

Here are some suggestions.

Reader favorites

These are some of the most popular games on the site, simply based on all-time clicks recorded:

Archipelago III, and predecessors
A popular GM-less game of collaborative story-telling, utilizing some innovative mechanics. Layout and everything!

Zombie Porn
Zombie Porn is a GM-less role-playing game that asks the question: “How far are you willing to go to survive in the undead entertainment industry?”

Until We Sink
An instant classic in the tiny Norwegian indie developer’s community. A surreal murder-mystery, GM-less, cards directing play and giving some instructions.

Blog posts

Photo: Snarglebarf

Photo: Snarglebarf

Role-playing poems
A brief text introducing the concept of role-playing poems, 15 minute games anyone can write and play!

Status in small communities
Some thoughts on the nebulous force of “status” and how it works in tiny creative communities like ours.

Deal
A dark game-like meditation on love. Or money. Or something else.

Sex
Some thoughts on making a collaborative storytelling game about sex.

Short games

A Trip to the Moon
A calm, friendly game to be played out as a bedtime story.

Fiction – a flexible freeform framework
The outline of a freeform game you make from scratch with your friends, with a few tools, rules and suggestions to help you get started. Can be used as an add-on to Play With Intent.

Going Galt
A critique of Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” in role-playing format.

Don’t Read the Comments
A short game utilizing the comments section of various online media for content.

Photo: Snarglebarf.

Photo: Snarglebarf.

Qualia
An anti-plot immersive exploration which may have the potential to be one of the most frustrating, or magical, role-playing experiences of your life.

Role-playing poems

Identity Poems
Sort of an existentialist take on the role-playing poem format.

The Bechdel Test
Play female characters from movies talking about something other than a man!

A Pebble
“A role-playing poem that takes on the issue of abortion.”

If you prefer print, the Nørwegian Style anthology (2009) is still available over on Lulu (15$), presenting 17 of these games.

Miss your favorites? Have experience with some of these games you’d like to share? Feel free to drop us a few lines in the comments.

Impressionist role-playing

Photo: .christoph.G./Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo: .christoph.G./Flickr (Creative Commons)

Re-reading some of the games on this site for another post I’m working on, I stumbled over Matthijs’ “Qualia”, a Game Chef contribution I’d completely forgotten about. It seems it was inspired by an improvised, short session I ran at HolmCon in 2006. I remembered taking some notes from the session, where I tried to formalize some of the procedures used, and looked it up on the old web forum we used to frequent. Here’s the translation:

Impressionist role-playing

– Lasts between 20 minutes to a couple of hours at the most.
Emotion, intuition, empathy, collaboration and mood takes precedence over rationality, planning, considering, competing and coherence.
– There is no conflict system. You don’t prepare scenarios in a traditional sense. It’s not important that there are conflicts or goals in the game. The aim is to, together, create moods and chains of association with both traditional and more experimental role-playing methods. It’s a kind of a role-playing jam.
– You agree on some mood or theme you’d like to bring forth or create allusions to.

bob_dylan_desire600The game master says: «I’d like to play a game slightly inspired by the Bob Dylan-record «Desire»: Romani, tarot cards, Northern Africa, starry nights, wind in the palm trees, golden jewelry. The players present their suggestions and associations. You agree on something.

– The players are by turn asked to describe their characters, in reference to the theme/mood you agreed on. When the next person describes her character, she’ll also tell us if she is somehow related to or connected with some of the other characters.

Håken describes Fatima, who every day sits on the beach baking bread. Magnus describes the English pilot who’s lived here for ten years, since his plane crashed during the second world war. He eats Fatima’s bread. Matthijs describes Fatimas father.

– There’s a game master, who on one level directs the game fairly tightly, and on another level gives the players almost completely free rein. He sets things moving, but listens to the players all the time. Sometimes, he’ll establish the scene, at other times he’ll ask the players: where is your character now? What is she doing? What does she see? What are you thinking? The game master has sort of a privileged function, but uses it to inspire and kickstart his fellow players. The guideline is what feels right then and there, and whatever whims and fancies strike the players.

The game master says: Fatima had a dream tonight she wishes to share with the pilot. It’s up to Fatima to relate the dream. The game master says: A card comes blowing along the beach, landing next to the pilot’s hand. What does it look like? The game master says: you find something by the plane’s wreckage. What is it?

– The game master makes sure everyone gets to participate, or that they’re happy in their passivity. This requires attention and empathy.
– The game master and players will often dwell on details.

Photo: Antonio Chinotti/Flickt (Creative Commons)

Photo: Antonio Chinotti/Flickt (Creative Commons)

A crab moving in the sand. The sparks from Fatima’s fire, ascending towards the sky. The smell and sounds from the ocean.

– This kind of dwelling is a challenging part of the method. It will primarily be brief (in real time). You don’t want long monologues from the game master, but rather activating the players and grooving together.
– The scenes are spotty, not necessarily connected, based on whim and associations that happen during the game. They’re first and foremost related to theme and mood, not action. Characters can also be replaced as warranted. The same player doesn’t have to control the same character throughout the whole game.
Accepting the ideas of others. You’re mild, accepting. The players are encouraged to take initiatives in the fiction. They don’t compete for attention. Trust the game master will help distribute attention and steer the improvisation to shore. If a player says something it will more likely than not be true in the fiction. What the characters do is accepted and used. What the players say is accepted and integrated.
– The game master distributes control over secondary characters and other elements in the game world after his own discretion and the needs of the fiction. One player could be asked to describe the dreams of another character, control some of the people in the other character’s memories, or be asked to create and control secondary characters as the need arises.
– You don’t address things outside of the game. The players are in an imperturbable dialogue with the fiction and each other, nothing else. This is kind of a collective meditation/visualization. The intensity the game format requires also causes it to be a relatively brief experience in real time.
Free association. If an occurrence in the game, a dialogue or description gives the game master an idea, he should try to chase it and see it through immediately.

Fatima’s father is talking to Fatima about her mother. The game master cuts to the same beach 20 years earlier. He describes Fatima’s mother, recently bathed, dressed in a silk gown on the beach. He asks the player Barbro, who just showed up, to portray the mother and ask what she says. Fatima’s father speaks with Fatima’s mother about Fatima’s grandmother. The game master cuts to a new scene on the beach, 20 years prior to this again, where Fatima’s grandmother is speaking with Fatima’s father. Barbro is asked to play Fatima’s grandmother.

– The players are also encouraged to associate freely, but their narrative rights are not as wide-ranging as those of the game master. The idea with having one guiding director is to preserve the harmony of the game.
Cut tightly. Even though the action is dwelling and slow, the singular scene will often be brief. The game master manages this, and cuts to new scenes whenever he feels it’s right.
Surprising angles. The game master is open for new thoughts on the content of play, in addition to using traditional techniques like time jump, player control over secondary characters, dream sequences, cut scenes and tight cutting.

Fatima’s father is resting in the hammock. It strikes the game master there must be many smells around him. He instructs Matthijs (who plays Fatima’s father) to briefly describe some of the smells in the hut. He asks the other players to make short statements about associations Fatima’s father has as he notices the various smells.

– The game master ends the game in a fitting way whenever it feels right.

Suggested experiment: play an impressionistic role-playing game with a soundtrack. Try to let the story and moods work in harmony with the record. It should probably be something without lyrics, or with words the players don’t understand. The challenge here will probably be the music not responding in accordance with the player’s actions, and the shifts in tempo on the album might crash with the tempo in the game. Worth a try.

Revisiting this nine year old text was sort of interesting. I didn’t work more in this direction, at least not in a structured way, but I think I’ve internalized some of the principles and methods. Some of it seems screamingly obvious, some methods and ideas very traditional. I don’t know. It was nice to see again.

The post fostered some interesting critique and feedback on the webforum back then, all in Norwegian, alas.

Sex

A concept sketch

For our local version of Game Chef, my friend Martin (co-author of Itras By) once designed a game called Sex. I played it at HolmCon, and found it to be a strange and anemic experience. But I liked the core idea: to make a collaborative storytelling game about fucking.

I’m sure there are a number of freeforms that already deal with this, but of the top of my head I can only think of Martin’s game, Jonas Trier-Knudsen’s 600 and Tobias Wrigstad’s Gang Rape. The latter two look at negative aspects of sex; the absurd alienation of a record gang-bang attempt in the porn industry (inspired by Chuck Palahniuk’s “Snuff”) and rape. I guess  you could say rape is more about violence than sex, but it’s a related topic.

I’d like to see a game that was more about the everyday interactions of sex, both the positive, quirky, tricky and weird. But not “gruesome”.

I think I’d like there to be some kind of facilitator/GM function. I also envision some cards feeding the game. Maybe scenes. Maybe topics.

Examples:

Negotiation
May I?
Would you?
Please
Be gentle
Be rough
Should we…
Please don’t

I think the actual intercourse is the core theme of the game, but it might also be interesting to deal with some of the immense amount of stuff “around” sex. The rules lovers make for each other, the negotiations you enter, conditioned cultural responses, forbidden desires and taboo subjects.

Sex is one of the most powerfully emotional things we do. I’d like the game to enable both giggles and laughs, but also more profound interactions. It could be a two-player game, but I think the intensity of that would be a bit too much for my tastes. I think three is a good number, with one player serving as facilitator, giving cues and hints, cutting & establishing scenes, describing setting and other stuff besides what the characters do.

I don’t know if I’d use pre-written characters, I think maybe the players can workshop some sketches, loosely based on themselves or people they’ve had sex with. Maybe you just play one single intercourse, maybe there are 3-5 scenes total. I think it should be a brief game, 2 hours tops. I read somewhere that the average intercourse lasts 11 minutes? I don’t know if that’s supposed to include foreplay, but I guess some people are skimpy on foreplay.

From 600, I’d steal the warm-up exercise where the players talk about “the weirdest porn they’ve seen”, but I’d change it into “relate some sexual experience they’ve had”. Maybe one positive and one funny? Taking turns to describe? There should probably also be some trust-building exercises. I think it’s a non-touch game, strictly verbal “sitting around a table talking”. Semi-larping like in “600” was maybe good for that game, but also very awkward.

I seem to recall “Gang Rape” (I never played it) having a rule about looking into the victim’s eyes as she narrates what your character does to her body? Some variation of that might work, but I’d like the characters in this game to have agency and for the sex to be completely consensual (but part of the game might be figuring out what you actually want and how to relate that). But eye contact is good, and maybe playing around a bit with who’s actions the players get to describe. Or that could be one of the cards: you describe what your partner does, he/she describes your reactions, or some similar weirdness.

I’m not particularly interested in making it “educational”, but I think you could learn stuff from such a game, or that it’d foster some kind of reflections.

I think it should be voluntary whether you play a man or a woman, whether it’s gay, heterosexual, group sex or something else. But I believe the intensity will increase with “close to home” play, riffing of your own experience and body.

Would I play it? Yes, I think I’d like to. Like many “intense topic” games, I don’t know if it’d be ideal with “random awkward nerd at festival”, but if we design it the right way, I think it could be robust enough for that to work as well.

Will I actually design it? Not sure. But you could, if you want to.

Indie Spring Festival: With Norwegian games!

Check this out: https://bundleofholding.com/presents/SpringFestival – for a limited time, you can get a bunch of great games super cheap! And part of the money goes to charity, so you’re saving the world a little as well.

The Norwegian influence is heavy in this bundle. Itras By was first published in Norwegian. Love in the Time of Seið was written by an American and a Norwegian. And the Game Poems are inspired by the Norwegian Role-Playing Poems. (Crossroads was written by a Dane, which means it’s almost Norwegian ;)

So yeah. Run along and check it out!

Night Air

“Evening falls over the siege camp. We’re getting ready to make some money. Quick and sometimes easy. We fuck soldiers and merchants in their tents. Maybe not the best job in the world, but the one we chose under the circumstances.
 
But this is just us getting ready. Talking before we go.”
 
Setup: Describe your character in one sentence. Leave some stuff out to discover during play – your gender, whether you have kids, how you got here or whatever.
 
Play: Talk in character. Talk about practical stuff, emotional stuff, your history, your make-up. Details and chatter.
 
Rule 1: You can talk about anything, except specific men. This is not about your relationships to or with men. If one of you forgets that and starts talking about men, just clear your throats and pretend it didn’t happen.
 
Rule 2: Whenever one of you feels like it, say goodbye to the others and go into the night, off to work. The game ends when there’s only one character left.
 
Epilogue: Close your eyes for a moment. Feel the freedom of walking into the night with the cold air on your face. Take a deep breath, open your eyes. Say goodbye.

 

Deal

1. it is possible there is love. let us pretend there is. but not in this game.
2. you still need love. or money. or something else. you need.

characters
your character wants something. they are driven by it.
they might admit it to themselves.
they might not.
you will play with one other person.
their character also wants something.
you have it.

examples
you want love, to be loved. you work hard and make money.
they want money. they can fake love.
you want to be good. you can provide a house, stability.
they want safety. they can fake that you’re a good person.

the lie
you never, ever, ever say out loud what you want. you never, ever, ever say out loud what you provide.
neither do they.

the scenes
1. you meet. you talk about whatever, do whatever.
underneath it all, the animals inside you sense that the other can provide what you want.
keep on talking about whatever.
do whatever.

2. you are apart.
the need.
you have found someone who can provide.

3. you meet again, and again.
let’s see some short scenes. montage. just sentences, vignettes.

4. now what?
how long do you keep it up?
let’s see some more scenes.
and more.
and more.

5. did you say it out loud?
did you mention it?
what happened?
what happens now?

6. can you live with each other, and with yourself?
this might be a happy ending.
or a redemption.
or splitting up.

7. epilogue
fun! will you fall into the same pattern?
will you break free?
who the hell are you, really?

A history of Archipelago

Archipelago is the most played of my games. Probably because it’s one of the best – and because it’s one of the few that actually have a market potential. Many of the games I make are things that few people are interested in, and fewer actually play. Because, you know, I’m a fucking artist.

I say “my” – and for some years it was just my game; but without Jason Morningstar it wouldn’t be what it is now, as you’ll see from the history below. He’s an awesome guy. We’ve met for about 10 minutes, during which he mostly said “I’m ill and have to go to my room”, or “could you talk to this guy, because I’m exhausted from being ill”. Other than that, we know each other only via the internet.

Aaaanyway. Let’s go.

0. Earthsea

A million years back, I wanted to make an Earthsea role-playing game. I started out a campaign with the basic premise that we’d add rules as we needed them. We ended up with a ridiculously simple “roll 1d6 and see what happens” system for ship combat, I think. Other than that, everyone played several characters, and we more or less took turns focusing on each player’s major character while other people played support. The basic vibe from this game made it into Archipelago, and is still a vibe that lives on in some of my best campaigns. I can’t entirely describe it. I’m not going to try.

Since I and my group had no idea what we were doing (this was probably around 1992), we tried out some shared narrative responsibility and failed pretty badly. At one point, a bunch of NPCs hosed a major character for no reason, and we had no way to stop what was just simple player dysfunction. That problem followed me through several later GM-less efforts, such as Will the Emperor Fall?, which had a memorably stupid playtest session where the main focus was the branded buttocks of one of the characters. I wanted the rules to work, and didn’t want to arbitrarily veto stuff, so I sat there and endured while the other players giggled and made my epic fantasy game into a ridiculous parody. These players are still my best friends, and people I love to play with. They’re still stupid, too.

1. Archipelago

In 2007 I designed Archipelago. I do not recall how. A lot of it just came to me as a result of thoughts that had been going on for 10-15 years, and all of a sudden it just seemed to fit together. I had no idea this would be the game that worked. It did work, although not all the people in the first playtest liked it. I changed almost nothing from first playtest to publication.

Archipelago contained the famous “Do it differently” phrase, which was made specifically to make it impossible for my best friends to fuck up the game. It also contained “More details”, which was based on the writing style of Ursula K LeGuin, author of the Earthsea books. She sometimes jumps in and adds a lot of detail about some more-or-less random setting element, making it appear as if the entire world has depth and detail. She has explained that in reality, she knows nothing more about the worlds she creates than what is written in the books; it’s all just a clever trick. I like that trick, and it works in games.

Players could have ownership of different elements of the fiction. This was done to make sure that things like, for instance, geography or the nature of magic had some consistency – things in GM-less games can get pretty gonzo pretty quickly if everyone can just add to everything.

The first version of the game had a simple resolution mechanic, drawing cards from a standard deck of playing cards. That changed later.

There were veto rules, pretty much lifted directly from Dirty Secrets by Seth Ben-Ezra, which had just come out.

Destiny points were based on the idea that major characters had destinies. The technique of writing them down so people would play towards them was from Eirik Fatland’s fate play technique. The idea of having several destinies, and letting people choose from them, was based on another game where people could choose from suggestions – I think Penny For Your Thoughts, but I could be wrong.

2. Archipelago II

A few people I didn’t personally know played Archipelago I, and gave feedback. (Chris Bennett, Robert Earley-Clark, Willem Larsen and Chris Peterson). That made me think the game might have, as we say in Norwegian, “livets rett” – the right to live. In the summer of 2009 I suddenly decided to make a new version of the game, adding a few elements.

One new element was resolution cards based on impro theatre. These cards, labeled “Yes, and…” and “No, but…” and similar, were something I’d made & tried out for an Itras By campaign in 2007 (for more about the relationship between Itras By and Archipelago, see http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/18000/itras-by-and-archipelago-a-love-story/p1).

The other element was fate cards, based on the chance cards Ole Peder and Martin had made for Itras By.

These cards were just thrown in. I’d never playtested them for Archipelago, and I put the game on the internet with no further testing.

3. Last Train out of Warsaw

So I was pretty happy with the game – at least, the way the ritual phrases worked. I’d put some thought into it, and could see how they made groups work better, which was something I was thinking a lot about (I put an essay on group dynamics into Archipelago II). I was a little frustrated that people weren’t immediately picking it up, playing it, and carrying me through the streets on their shoulders while sacrificing goats and wine and chocolate to me, but that’s just how I am. A few people did play it, though, and it started getting a litttttle bit of buzz.

Suddenly, Jason Morningstar posted this on the Nørwegian Style blog:

“I really like the game and would like to hack it in my own directions, and wanted your approval before I started.”

And I went, huh? And sure, and what? And he’d written an entire game, an Archipelago hack with a scenario and ready-made characters. Completely not the generic game I’d made. I tried it out and he put it on the internet.

4. Crazy shit happens

For the next year or two, people started doing stuff with Archipelago. Jamie Fristrom designed his own cards, and made a hack combining Archipelago and James Wallis’ Once Upon a Time. Willem Larsen came up with new phrases, techniques and even ASL signs. Pablo Martínez translated it into Spanish, Maitresinh into French. Anders Nygaard made a Stormtrooper hack. Richard Williams made a game, Anarktica, expanding on the Archipelago rules. And Rafael Chandler made a hack using miniatures and dice. (Yeah, I KNOW!)

5. Love in the Time of Seið

While crazy shit was happening (the exact chronology can be pieced together from the post on Archipelago II, I think), I contacted Jason asking if he wanted to collaborate on a game. He did, and we made Love in the Time of Seið. It was partly based on a movie script I never finished, but I’m not sure if I ever told Jason that; anyway, he and I changed it a lot from its initial premises. He made a very tight web of relationships for the characters, and we made up a lot of cool locations. I think we actually used Google Wave to collaborate, moving to Google Docs after a while. It was very exciting for me working with Jason, who I have a lot of respect and admiration for.

The game had some innovations and changes, especially the use of location cards, the introduction of Themes and Events and theme guides. This was a continuation of the Fate cards in Archipelago II, only tied much tighter into the setting and characters. We also gave each characters some questions to answer, based on the Montsegur technique.

To make things easy, and because we’re such awesome human beings, we give the proceedings to charity. Jason has handled all the practical matters, and did the layout for the game.

6. Archipelago III

In 2012 Jason contacted me. He wanted to make a better-looking, better-edited & updated version of the rules.

We decided to add two new phrases to the official ruleset: “Help”, to get input from the group; and “Harder”, to encourage players to really push where it hurts. Both had been tried and found to make the game more fun. We removed the use of tokens to track location, since none of us actually used that, and we simplified the veto rules.

Jason worked on the resolution cards, adding some, changing others, to make a bigger and more varied set.

7. What now?

We’ve had two aborted attempts at sequels. Now, however, we’ve got a pretty-much-finished game, a sister game to Love in the Time of Seið, which I’m very happy with. It’s sexy, full of intrigues, and has interesting gender-roley stuff going on. We need to edit it more and get design for it, and then we’ll put it out there.