Pre-generated characters are common in RPGs for one-shots, convention scenarios, and for playing main characters from movies, TV, and books. Generally, if you’re playing for any longer amount of time than that in an RPG, you’re making your own character.
Then there are tabletop games where you bring your own character to the table to play, which is designed in such a way to attempt to be balanced again other characters in the game. Some of my favorites in this genre include Brawl, Button Men, and even games like Descent where purchasing a new character means you bring him to the table to play.
Combining some of these ideas is the upcoming Guestbook RPG by Machine Age Productions. You bring your own pre-made character, and link up with someone else with a different character. There, the two of you generate flash fiction (i.e. very quick, created in about 5 minute) stories for the characters you both are playing based on how the two character sheets (more like brochures) interact, some direction provided by the character having the story, and the results of some Rock-Paper-Scissors. In the end, you’ll come out with a story starring the character. Then switch roles with the other person so that each character gets a story. Finally, the two of your switch ownership of the characters, so you’re off to play with someone else with a new character in hand.
Guestbook RPG sounds like one of those “so simple I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it” ideas that game designers get immediately jealous of. Combine that with another classic game design challenge- make something playable while waiting in a line- and toss in some great Twitter use for the game (and not just as a marketing afterthought), and you have the recipe for a very intriguing game.
Thus, I reached out to the game’s designers David A. Hill Jr. and Filamena Young to ask them a few more questions about the game, how it will work, and if it’s unique as it all sounds. In addition to the answers, I’ve gotten a great preview from them of one of the first Guestbook RPG characters: Taco Girl.
Critical Hits: What was the genesis for Guestbook RPG? Any particular inspirations for the idea?
David: We came to realize that while we spend a lot of time talking about games, designing games, and buying games, we don’t spend much time playing games. As adults, it’s very difficult to get a group together. Between work schedules, vacations, child care, and conventions, gaming often falls by the wayside. We wanted to make a simple roleplaying game you could explain to a person and play, all in the course of about ten minutes.
We felt the best way to handle this was through a small, collectible release model. While Guestbook doesn’t support campaign play, playing a game sets you up for your next game immediately, since you get a new character sheet every time.
Filamena: We also spend a lot of time in lines. At stores. At Disneyland. At Conventions. At airports. We kept muttering ‘should be a game for this.’ So, you know, we made one.
CH: Can you give us a bit more how the game actually plays?
David: The game takes about ten minutes, which means about five minutes per story. I imagine with more available time, and more creative players, a game could stretch on longer. You’re telling two very short stories. Each of you gives the other player a prompt to improvise a story. So I give you a little prompt to start a story for my character; you act kind of like my GM. You give me a prompt for your character; I’m your GM, effectively. We throw Rock, Paper, Scissors to see who goes first.
Using the prompt you’re given, and a few words off your sheet, you start a story for your partner. Your goal is to use some of the nouns and verbs listed on your sheet in their story. As well, you have a handful of complications you can add. Complications are from your sheet, so your partner has no idea what complications might arise. You resolve the complication with a Rock, Paper, Scissors-based mechanic. Both players get a unique RPS sign they can throw in those challenges.
You come out with two stories. You can play competitively, by tracking the “points” you score by RPS challenges, and by use of your verbs and nouns. Then, you trade character sheets. So if I’m playing Bob, and you’re playing Sally, we trade sheets. Then, I have Sally so the next time I’m playing, I’m using a different character. Each character has ten prompts, three complications, and about ten nouns and verbs. So this means the combinations are almost limitless. Playing Bob’s third prompt with Sally’s complications won’t even be the same game as Bob’s fourth prompt with Dave’s complications.
Filamena: All the nouns, verbs and complications on a sheet are thematically matched to the character your playing, so when you throw them at your partner’s stories things should get pretty funny. For example, the Taco Girl has ‘fry’ as a verb on her sheet. If you’re playing Frank the Vampire King and have to work ‘fry’ into your story, things get more fun.
CH: You say in the Kickstarter that you wanted something less ambitious than your last project Amaranthine (which was just winding down when this was announced), but it seems to me that a project featuring potentially dozens of characters, each one needing to be compatible in play with all the others in some fashion, plus social media integration, plus possibly game design for hire when making new ones for buyers- that sounds awful ambitious to me. Is there something about the design of Guestbook that makes it pretty simple once it’s going?
David: Well, we mostly mean less financially ambitious. Amaranthine was an expensive project to put together. The art, layout, editing, and design set us back a lot. Every copy of the book was a significant financial investment. However, Guestbook’s a lot more affordable to develop, so our Kickstarter goal was a lot smaller. Amaranthine took us a year. A Guestbook character takes a couple of days. So, we’re more able to experiment and toy around with format for Guestbook. The format itself is templated. So we basically come up with the material, then give it a few test runs, and it’s ready to ship.
One fun thing about the compatibility is that it’s not supposed to be perfect. If you have a weird combination, part of the challenge for the players is making the stories work. As Filamena said earlier, Taco Girl’s complications, nouns, and verbs will interact strangely with Frank the Vampire King. Frank’s stories might be short bits of gothic horror by default, but when you add Taco Girl’s quirks to the mix, his stories become something completely different.
Filamena: The format for writing Guestbook characters is actually a great little exercise in brevity. You have to give enough info to get a story going without taking up a lot of space. All our story seeds are in the same format. “Establish your hook. Establish your conflict. Establish terms of fulfillment.” It makes it go very fast, but also causes you to do a lot of braining to make it work. (Braining is totally a word.) So it makes them FUN to write, so, you know, it feels less like work.
David: I liked the term Filamena used previously, she referred to it as “gaming haiku.”
CH: There are plenty of games and publishers that have a social media presence, but it sounds like you’ll be running social media as a way to document games and possibly work within the game itself. Can you explain how you see that working?
David: Of course. We’re setting up both a Twitter account and a Twitter hashtag for Guestbook. This is less for direct promotion like many game publishers do, and more to build a connected community for the game. If you play a game, you can Tweet who you played with, the characters, and the score. This way there’s a “permanent record” of the game, and everyone can see who is playing. Since you trade sheets, this is a way to find out who has something. If you want Frank the Vampire King, and you see that someone at the same convention just got Frank from a game, you have to find them and go challenge them.
We’re looking at possibilities for implementation, but really the goal is to get people interacting, and to serve as a way to make friends. We’re considering doing a location-based system like Foursquare (if you’re a web developer, get in touch with us!) and we’ll be putting QR codes on the sheets. These QR codes will direct you to a specific web page for the character, which will include the character PDF, a list of known players, and possibly some extras.
Filamena: And we want it to really live and breath. The idea is that we want to know where your Flash Gaming and with who and how much fun you had. I could see a situation where write ups with games, ‘fan fiction’ and so on could all be a part of the network for the game. But, that’s sort of down the road. First and foremost, we want to get people playing.
Someday, I want to get to post up the wedding announcment of a couple who met playing Guestbook.
CH: I know you’ve already talked about releasing characters specific to the Kickstarter, for being at GenCon, and that sort of thing. How many of these do you envision running around? Are they going to be kept within a certain theme, or will (say) the superhero set and the future vampire set work together just fine still? And will they all come from your “central authority” or will fans be able to design their own in any kind of official capacity?
David: Honestly, it’ll be supply and demand driven. If people continue to take interest, we’ll keep making them. There’s no upward limit. The Guestbook model allows us to do fun one-off sheets for various projects. For example, the backers for our Amaranthine Kickstarter are getting an Amaranthine-centric exclusive sheet. If we do a sheet for a convention, for a wedding, for a LARP, or whatever, it’ll work with all others. But most importantly, it’s released exclusive to that group. To get the sheet, you have to find those people and play with them.
All the sets and exclusives will work together to make fun new stories. Our first series is “Ordinary People in Extraordinary Situations,” like our mentioned Taco Girl. The second series is “Extraordinary People in Ordinary Situations,” which is basically superheroes being jammed into real life. We might do horror themes, fantasy, and whatever. Every sheet will be backwards compatible.
We’re huge supporters of gaming as a community, and open licensing. All Machine Age works are released under a Creative Commons license. For Guestbook specifically, we’ll be releasing our basic template, to allow people to make fan products. We’re calling these “official bootlegs.” The only requirement is, we ask people to allow us to post their sheets on the website. Letting people make new sheets only benefits the community, since it adds new collectibles to the game.
Filamena: Like I said earlier, keeping the characters thematically tied to themselves, keeping the story seeds short, all that is a lot of fun. Not as much fun as playing the game will be, (of course) but we wouldn’t want to tell people ‘you can’t do that, because we can’t make money off it.’ That’s lame.
CH: Finally, why should people get in here and now on the Kickstarter?
David: Well, first off, they get a supercool exclusive sheet. So if they get in on the ground floor of the project, they get a sheet that nobody else will have available. And second, it allows influence over the project. Right now, our next goal allows the Kickstarter backers to choose our third series. Do you think a children’s set sounds awesome? Do you want us to do fantasy? Body horror? Ninjas? If you’re one of the backers, you’ll get to vote on it.
Also, for the Kickstarter, we’re allowing retailers to get in on the action for better prices than they’d get through traditional distribution channels. We even added a couple of levels where you can get your own special sheets designed. We’ll make it to your specifications, and you get complete control of its release. Are you running a con where you want a memorable goodie bag prize? We can help you. Do you have a LARP with huge lines where you want to keep your players entertained? We can help you. Really, the beauty of Guestbook for us is how versatile we can be with its execution.
Filamena: We believe in the gaming community, or communties if you’d rather. The traditional publishing model never totally worked for small press, and I think we’ve got to suck it up and find new ways of doing things. Kickstarter and so on are a great way to experiment. Basically, the best reason to do our Kickstarter (or any Kickstarter) is because it gives you a voice in the industry. It helps you say with your money up front, ‘this is what I believe in! This is what I want to see more of.’ If that’s experimental gaming like Guestbook or “Be Ashamed Young Prince” by Nathan Paoletta, or to support classic dugeon crawls and “old school” or whatever part of gaming really tickles you. What matters is that you CAN get involved now, so you totally should.
Below, as promised, here’s a preview of one of the text of one of the many Guestbook characters coming soon, the infamous Taco Girl:
About Taco Girl
She works at the Taco Hut seven days a week, mostly afternoons because she takes classes at the community university in the morning. She likes history and art and maybe if she’d gone to a better school she could have been a scholar. As it is, she takes your change and your abuse when you order twenty-six 50 cent tacos.
Last week, while cleaning up, she found a dead man in the bathroom. Horrified, she called the police, of course, but not before taking a DVD labeled ‘the secrets of the History’ in shaky handwriting. In blood, the dead man had written ‘work must go on.’
Words to Use
- Nouns: Cult, Alien, Illuminati, Bleach, ‘Secret Sauce’
- Verbs: Fry, Rebel, Appraise, Sneak, Expose
- No Days Off: You can have as much adventure as you like, but you can’t afford to miss another day of work, so get there no matter where the story takes you.
- Home Fires: You’re significant other is more than a little suspicious of your activities. Tell your story and have an adventure without and prove to your significant other that it isn’t what they thinks.
- What Would Mother Think?: Mom, and the rest of your community, matters to you. Whatever you do in your story, make sure you don’t offend their sensibilities. Or at least, don’t get caught doing it.
- The DVD tells where to find a lost Holy Artifact. The location, an old church, is going to be destroyed this weekend to make room for a mall. You must sneak in to the church, steal the artifact and make it out safely before the building is destroyed.
- The DVD reveals your regional manager as a man-eating alien. He’s invited you and four other Employees of the year to a ‘special dinner’. Expose your manager as an alien before he eats you and the other guests.
- The DVD reveals the secrets of a local cult that destroys lives. You just realized that the ‘church’ your mother just joined is a front for this cult. Expose the church as part of this cult without them killing your mom while avoiding her ‘disapproval of your lifestyle’.
- You play the DVD, but it appears blank. It isn’t until after you realize since watching it, you’ve started having quick flashes of the future. Figure out what the DVD did to change the way our brain works, and who you tell about it safely.
- Upon playing the DVD, you realize it’s a training video for Taco Hut management. Only the instructions are how to add vampire blood to the slushy machine, turning all the taco employees into vampire slaves. Find the vampires, save the city, and stop those slushies!
- The DVD shows a collection of evidence suggesting a dark otherworldly power is trying to stop a Union form forming at the Taco Hut. Apparently, everyone who has been to a union meeting is on a list to be ‘exterminated,’ including you. Warn the union and help them arm themselves for a real fight.
- The DVD explains what’s really in the ‘17% filler’ in your ‘fresh’ taco beef. It’s human flesh, but, as the DVD suggests, it’s less than some other companies as if it’s a point of pride. Find out where they’re getting the ‘filler’ from and get it to the authorities before the Taco Hut execs hunt you down.
- The DVD is a How-To with a simple plan that really really works! The problem is, it explains how to identify aliens in human guise, and apparently, there are a lot of aliens that like tacos. Figure out which of your alien clientele are good and how to get rid of the rest.
- The DVD is a badly recorded message from yourself in the future warning that the ‘tacos will explode on Tuesday.’ You don’t tell yourself which Tuesday, especially troubling as the store has started a ‘3 Tacos for a Dollar Tuesday’ deal. Figure out what ‘exploding tacos’ might mean before the Tuesday you warned yourself about.
- The DVD explains how to identify a werewolf, suggesting there are a number of these monsters locally. Your creep of a boyfriend is displaying some of those traits. Figure out if there’s a cure, how to separate him from his pack ‘buddies’ and decide if it’s even worth saving him.
That’s Taco Girl, coming soon to Guestbook RPG. The Kickstarter for Guestbook is going on now and ends June 30th, so a little over a week to join up and get an exclusive character to the Kickstarter, as well as help determine the direction of the third set.