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I am happy to report that I did in fact host my party this past weekend, and in spite of a flurry of winter flus and colds, I had plenty of fabulous and creative people in attendance. Challenge met.

I have a great interest in experimenting with social gatherings (otherwise known as parties) and creating different social experiences for people. I’ve been most intrigued by designing parties that encourage mingling, meeting new people, and getting to know slight acquaintances better (as opposed to sticking within already established friend groups and/or the people you came to the party with) and parties that cultivate creativity. (I’m also interested in the idea of fostering deeper connections between people, but I haven’t experimented much with that yet.)

The Albion experiment:

Some months ago I read about Emily Short’s San Tilapian Studies, a “narrative entertainment” for 30-40 players, and I instantly wanted to try it. Check out her post for a detailed description, but in summary, there are three different color stickers, and each person gets two stickers of the same color. One color is an item, one color is a descriptor, and one color is a function. The goal of the game is to put together three stickers, one of each color, into an awesome item (or in the case my game, a magical artifact). Then you put the stickers in a book and add drawings and/or text about it.

I used the rule mechanics almost exactly as stated in the blog post, with one exception: I changed the part about one sticker being a vile forgery, so people could match up both their stickers if desired. I re-themed the game to be high fantasy and titled it “Reclaiming Albion.” The story went that we were all native Albion scholars researching our magical heritage, which had been stamped out centuries before when an evil empire had conquered Albion.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Map of Albion, drawn by Wendy Shaffer.

Results and Observations:

I waited an hour after the stated party start time to launch the game; I wanted a critical mass of people present to give more possible match options. Time from the launch of the game until it finished was about three hours, with another half hour for sharing, although most people were not playing for the majority of that time.

After I handed out the stickers, there were a couple of really fast matches, mostly between significant others and tight friend groups. I was a little worried that the game would be over extremely quickly, but after that initial burst, players began to be more picky with their matches and explore options before deciding. The matches also became more difficult with less stickers in play, requiring more exploration. People began to mingle outside of their immediate circles. Did everybody do this? No. But it did give more opportunities for people to approach each other and get to know each other while working together, which was really cool to watch.

Perhaps because my party was smaller (~20 players), there were a couple two-sticker matches that couldn’t find a third sticker that was a good fit. In those cases, I waited a while to make sure a match wouldn’t materialize, and then provided a third sticker that would complete the artifact in a fun way.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Amazing folded art by Steve Young.

Lessons Learned:

1. While this party was certainly more flexible than a standard mystery party, it still mattered that players were present at or near the start time of the game because later on, there were less stickers in circulation. I’d emphasize arriving early-ish in the invitation next time. That being said, for people who didn’t care about playing, arriving later was fine because there was more socializing happening then anyway.

2. I received a few suggestions of changes in implementation that could be interesting to try. One was to hand out four stickers at the beginning of the game instead of two, although I’m not certain about this one, as it would increase the options so hugely at the beginning. Perhaps another way to achieve something similar would be to have two rounds. The other suggestion was to make an explicit rule to encourage more mingling: for example, that everyone is only allowed to collaborate with each person once or that no collaborating is allowed with anyone you came to the party with. I tend to like to have as few rules as possible, but the results of either of these rules would be interesting to observe.

2. I provided paper to glue into the book to avoid a bottleneck of people wanting to draw/write/etc. and having to wait for the book. However, many people wanted to wait for the book anyway. I think perhaps if I had provided fancier paper, people would have been more excited to use it. (That being said, people began to use the paper once they realized how long a wait it was.)

3. I provided many different colors of ballpoint pen, as well as black gel pens and markers. I thought I’d gone way overboard, but people loved having a big selection. Next time I’d be tempted to provide an even larger variety of supplies.

4. At the end of the evening, several players were very eager to share their work and see other people’s work. I don’t know why I didn’t expect this! We sat around in a circle for storytime, when I showed all the illustrations and read the artifacts and text out loud. It was quite entertaining, and it allowed people to share their experiences from the evening.

5. I didn’t realize the book would be as amazing as it is. People took the opportunity to be creative and ran with it. Included with the stickers were: many drawings of artifacts; a map of Albion and surrounding areas, complete with broken seal; short stories; a limerick; and magical recipes concealed in a specially folded paper. It made me realize how excited people can get when presented with the chance to be creative together. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise since kids are the same way, but I see it in practice less frequently with adults.) I think having the atmosphere be fairly low pressure helped minimize feelings of self-consciousness as well. (Contrast this with indie RPGs that require improv, which provide very creative experiences but are too stressful for some people.)

All in all, a fun and successful party! And I made enough stickers that I could do another one. I think that re-theming the party could also keep it fresh enough for several parties with many of the same guests. (Or maybe I just think that because I’d love to do a science fiction theme.)

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

I have a weakness for Faberge eggs, so imagine my delight at this drawing by Nick Duguid.

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When I talked about being on the panels at ConFusion, I mentioned I had another challenge coming up. And now it’s almost here.

The challenge: hosting my own party.

What’s the big deal, you might be asking. My local friends in particular know that I’ve thrown many parties. I’ve even thrown custom-written mystery parties, in addition to all kinds of theme parties and barbecues. I arrange board game gatherings on a regular basis. I convince people it would be fun to dress up to go see the James Bond movie. Event planning is something I’ve had some experience doing.

But when it comes to parties, I never host by myself. I have, in fact, never thrown a party of greater than six or seven people without a co-host. I discovered the amazing reassurance of having a co-host fairly early on, when it turned out a good friend’s birthday was three days after mine. It was only natural that we’d throw a birthday party together. And from there, a tradition was born. Since then, I’ve always found a co-host with whom to collaborate.

But that changes now. I’m hosting a party this weekend. By myself. I’ve been trying to keep it on the small side because of space constraints, but it’s definitely a party. And a themed “narrative entertainment” party, at that.

My biggest fear about hosting a party is always that no one will show up. That’s why having a co-host is so great–you’re guaranteed their presence, at the very least, plus they’ll be inviting all their friends too. It was a great way for me to get experience throwing parties. However, at this point I am 99% certain this fear is ridiculous and completely unfounded in reality. So by throwing a party, I’ll be putting that last one percent to rest.

I recently read an article about a study showing that when you’re experiencing performance anxiety, it’s better to get excited than it is to try to calm down. This makes complete sense to me because it’s helpful to have somewhere to put that nervous energy. I think back to the times I’ve been the most nervous, and in general it was for events that I was not excited about. Auditions mostly, which for me are just not as thrilling as performances.

Happily for me, I’m very excited about this party, which means whenever I start to feel nervous, I think about that excitement instead. I really like experimenting with parties that are a little different from the standard barbecue or “Apples to Apples” type affair, and trying new ideas to see what works in a party atmosphere and what doesn’t. This time I’m using a party game mechanic I’ve never tried before, and it was really fun to do the creative prep work for the game. I’ve had stickers custom printed, a friend has agreed to take photographs, and if all goes according to plan, by the end of the party there should be a physical book with records of my guests’ creative fancies. I expect it to be a memorable evening.

The teaser I've given my party guests...

The teaser I’ve given my party guests…

I’ll report back here next week to tell you how it went!

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Lately I’ve become very excited by tabletop storygames and also indie RPGs in general. Most storygames are indie, but not all indie RPGs are storygames; that being said, the indie games I’ve been exposed to tend to be rules-light and more focused on storytelling than mechanics.

Storygames often have affinities to RPGs, live storytelling, story structure, and/or improv. As the Story Games Codex defines it, a tabletop storygame is “a type of role-playing game experience with a lesser focus on “My Character” and a greater focus on “Our Story” (meaning the story that all the players at the table want to make).” Since as a role player, I am firmly in the narrativist camp, these storygames are an intriguing new avenue for me to explore.

This past weekend, I had a few friends over to try out the storygame Fiasco for the first time. Fiasco is a storytelling GM-less game that focuses on telling “capers gone wrong” stories a la the Coen Brothers, Snatch, and the Italian Job. You roleplay the story, breaking it into two acts, two scenes per act per player. The game uses six-sided dice as a mechanic for choosing elements for your story from a bunch of charts, deciding whether things go well or poorly during each scene, and determining some twists and your characters’ endings.

In which we make up our characters.

In which we make up our Fiasco characters.

I had a great time trying a system that puts storytelling ahead of mechanics. It was very challenging for a diehard outliner like myself to participate in a game with sixteen scenes that I couldn’t outline ahead of time, but the difficulty was part of what made it fun for me. Plus I am really motivated to play several more times to try to improve my pantsing skills. While Act 1 lagged for us as we tried to figure out what to do, Act 2 really picked up, and the endings were hilarious and satisfying.

In fact, I’m so excited about these games that I’ve compiled a list of games I’d like to try in the future:

1. Spirit of the Century: Okay, I’m actually in the middle of a campaign in this system. It deserves its own post, but for now, suffice it to say that the system is made of awesome. It’s a pulp adventure game tailored specifically for one shots. It does need a GM, however.

2. Microscope: A world building storygame about epic histories. I have access to this game, so I’m hoping to try it out soon!

3. Monsterhearts: I have this on order and I’m super excited about it. It’s a storygame set in a high school where the students are discovering mystical powers (aka Witch, Werewolf, Chosen One, etc.) with a Buffy flavor. I’d love to play a longer campaign to try out this one.

4. Shooting the Moon: A love triangle storygame.

5. A Penny for My Thoughts: A game about trauma and lost memory. (After working so long on The Academy of Forgetting, this game sounds like a great fit for me and my interests.)

6. The Shab-al-Hiri-Roach: A game about competitive and backstabbing professors in a small-town university. I wish I owned tweed, because I would wear it while playing this game.

7. Shock: Social Science Fiction: To be honest, I don’t really understand what this one is about yet exactly. But it references Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Philip K. Dick in its flavor text, so I want to find out.

8. Polaris: A storygame about brave knights living in a corrupting world. Yes please.

9. Primetime Adventures: An RPG in which you and your friends put on a TV show.

10. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen: A wagering storygame in which you sit around telling wild stories.

11. Once Upon a Time: A storytelling card game.

12. Gloom: A perverse card game telling the tragic story of a group of misanthropes.

13. The Quiet Year: A post-apocalyptic map storygame. 

14. Winter Tales: This board game is coming out later this year so it’s a little hard to tell exactly what it is. It might be a story-based board game similar to Tales of the Arabian Nights, but it looks like its mechanics are a bit more involved and focused on collaborative storytelling. Stay tuned!

Have you ever played any of the above games? Do you have more games I should add to my list?

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