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I recently discovered a new game that blew my mind when I read it: Swords Without Master, by Epidiah Ravachol.

Its genre is sword & sorcery — think Conan the Barbarian, although the author specifically cites Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories as inspiration.

What blew my mind was the game mechanics.  They are entirely focused on directing and inspiring storytelling.  There is no conflict resolution mechanic!  The dice are used to set the tone of narration, to trigger plot twists, to cue a new mystery, but never to determine a character’s success or failure (sometimes they’ll do that anyway, but that won’t be why you’re rolling).

It is as if the author asked himself: “Can I distill short-story writing down to a formula?  Now, can I make the formula into a group activity?  Now can I add rules and dice to make it fun?” And Swords Without Master is the result.  It’s group improv story-telling, with just enough direction from the rules to challenge and inspire, and to bring forth story elements like themes, morals, tension, and pacing.

Upon first read, it seemed completely different than anything else I’d ever seen.  Now, I can see the family resemblance to other story games like Fiasco (which I’ve only read) and 1001 Nights (which I’ve only read about).

It’s clear from the manuscript that Ravachol knows and loves the genre, and the art of writing.  The game text is economical and evocative like a good short story.

Just as interesting is the game’s packaging.  Ravachol publishes an e-zine of sword & sorcery short fiction and games, called Worlds Without Master.  This game, Swords Without Master, was included in issue 3.  The game was arguably his reason for starting the zine, and all of the zine’s other articles (thus far) can be seen as supplemental or inspirational material for the game.

I haven’t played the game yet.  But I know that I have to.  Not only because I’m a big fan of sword & sorcery fiction, but because one of my big fascinations with role-playing games (and fiction) is to explore the secrets of story structure.  This game does that directly.  My only question is: will any of my regular gaming buddies want to try it?

-J

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