Lancing for Free

Fishasaurus

A couple of years ago I was hired by a company to write some material based on the Pathfinder RPG. Today I’m going to share what it was like to be working under a deadline, and to be your own boss. If you want to know more about how to break into the freelancing biz… go to another blog! This happened to me pretty much through sheer luck, and because I was diligent in following this particular company’s work. There are lots of great resources to help you get started on your freelancing career. I found this one particularly helpful, and this book put out by Kobold Press was a good read. I am looking to do more work as a freelancer (which is part of why I started this here blog), so in this post I just want to talk about the process, and share a bit of my work.

So, here’s what happened. For a long time, I was following this company that published Pathfinder material (as a 3rd party). I was a fan, and I wanted to keep abreast of their newest releases. One day, on their Facebook page, they make an announcement that they are looking for writers to work on an adventure path.

An adventure path, for those of you who don’t know, is a serial story meant to be used by game-masters in a role-playing game. It was originally popularized by the company Paizo, which publishes Pathfinder. So it’s a bigger, more epic version of an adventure, which includes an outline for a plot, challenges for the players, maps, and a whole lot of “rules stuff” that many GM’s don’t have the time or inclination to come up with themselves.

So I responded to this call, and I was hired almost immediately. The company didn’t ask for a portfolio or a sample of my work, they just told me to write something and have it ready in roughly six months. There was no contract written up until I had almost finished the thing, and no payment up front. Just so you know, this is not quite normal, and if you get hired this way, you should be suspicious. Anyway, I saw it as a great opportunity (which I still think it was), and I was excited to be getting paid to work in tabletop RPG’s. Any further discussion of the fallout on this project, and where it all ended up, should probably be postponed for now. Today we’re talking about what it was like to write the thing.

SO, I sat down to work. The project took me longer than expected, and in some ways, it was probably a good thing that the company was a bit lackadaisical in their approach, because there were a few months in which I mostly just languished in writer’s block. But I got it done on time. Here are some strategies that helped me –

  • Outline like crazy – I find this fun, and really helpful. I write in a fairly improvisational style, letting excitement and inspiration take me where they may. This is great, until you inevitably get to that point where the little voice in your head says, “EVERYTHING SUCKS, ALL THE TIME!!!” That’s when it helps to have some structure to fall back on. I filled a whole notebook with outlines and ideas, and then wrote up the actual document with chapters/encounters/characters/sidebars/etc. Almost everything was laid out, because that’s what I would do when I hated the actual writing part, and it helped to see exactly where everything was going. You should still be flexible and change or scrap parts of the outline if the story demands it, or if you just think of something better.
  • Share it! – Don’t work in a bubble. Find some friends to share your work with, and take their feedback seriously. If you are writing RPG material, test it out! Play the game, see what emerges from the story you have written. It took me forever to finally summon the courage to share the adventure. When I did, I got lots of great feedback and support, but I was already close to deadline!
  • Have more than one work-space – Practically every writer will tell you that it’s helpful to have a working space that is not your living space. The collision between “this is where I work,” and “this is where I play,” can drive a person to madness. I would say, have several working spaces. Think about what you do while you write, and what helps to keep your brain working, and get yourself a little corner where you can do those things. I, for example, am a pacer. I pace, a lot. And talk to myself, and wave my arms around, and sometimes lie down on the floor and groan. If I didn’t have a common room in my apartment, I don’t know where I could have done that sort of thing. I also had my favorite coffee-shop (I love you Haymarket!), a friend’s house, the library, and my closet, where I wasn’t allowed to go on the internet.

There’s a million other sites and resources out there to help you with the act of writing, and for writing game material. I will close with a little of sample of this project. The adventure path is called Beneath the Midnight Shroud, it’s a creepy, bizarre story that mostly takes place under the ocean (I was writing for a super-niche crowd). One of the coolest parts of D&D type games is the monsters and weird creatures you encounter in the story, and part of my assignment was to design some new ones. So here they are! While I’m at it, I’ll include some magic items. If you play Pathfinder, you might find these useful or at least interesting.

Monsters of the Midnight Shroud

Treasures of the Midnight Shroud

Enjoy!

Image courtesy of Petr & Bara Ruzicka, Creative Commons

Roll with Wisdom

Ready to Roll

Now to geek out about another beloved hobby of mine.

I could say that I have always been, from childhood on, really into role-playing games. I was an imaginative kid, and my brothers and I loved nothing better than a good game of pretend. These games were often violent, and sometimes involved dangerous stunts, but that just made them all the more immersive. And when I say violent, I mean more in the “boys will be boys” kind of way. I did get a tooth knocked out one time, but it was going to fall out anyway.

When kids role-play, it’s just a natural, fluid thing. They can dive into a game of pretend anywhere, anytime. Any setting or physical space can be transformed into something way more interesting. I’m sure there’s plenty of theories about how and why we play this way as children. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a solid sense of self yet, or maybe we just don’t care as much about acting ridiculous in front of other people. As kids approach the early teens, this sort of behavior tends to disappear. Unless of course, you were a geek like me, and you just couldn’t stay away from those dream worlds.

My preferred form of role-playing game is the tabletop version. You’ve heard of Dungeons and Dragons, the true epitome of nerdliness. That stuff is my bread and butter, and D&D, along with many other games like it, have given me years of good stories and enjoyable times with friends. The funny thing about these games is that they’re actually very different from childhood games of pretend (I know, I had a metaphor going). If anything fits that metaphor, it’s LARPing. Tabletop RPG’s require, in my experience, a great amount of patience, a love for complex rules and systems, and some amount of improvisational talent. This is a weird combination of traits, and I think that’s part of the reason why RPG’s remain a niche hobby. In my early years, I unwittingly created many RPG’s to play with my brothers (eventually, just my younger brother). I would write them up in spiral-bound notebooks. They had maps, charts, and a lot of arbitrary rules. They were probably tedious as hell for my siblings, but as the creator I was enjoying the power trip. I called them “GOP’s,” or “Games on Paper.” I’ve since distanced myself from that acronym, for reasons.

In spite of all this, I never tried playing an actual RPG until college, which is kind of mind-boggling. I had the second edition Monstrous Manual in second grade (oh the magic!), and I even had a close friend who played D&D. This friend also had a large knife collection, and honest-to-god Desert Storm Tradings Cards, so maybe I had my reasons. But I was also in denial for a long time about how much of a geek I really was, and I don’t think I dealt with that until I left home. When I was away at school, someone on my hall had practically every third edition D&D book ever released, and was very gracious about lending them out. The dam burst, the Sleeper Awoke, and so on, I was hooked. As an actor, a writer, a world-builder, and someone fascinated with fiction, it was always meant to be.

I’m almost always the Gamemaster in any RPG that I play with friends. I spin the plot, act out the minor characters, and (less successfully) teach and interpret the rules. To this day I maintain a great love for old-fashioned, complex, traditional sorts of games. But over the years I discovered that the hobby was diverse, and changing, like everything else. In the late aughts there was a movement towards games that were light on rules, and encouraged more interesting, dynamic storytelling. The history and progress of that movement is worthy of it’s own post, but I can at least drop a few illustrious names. I became inspired by the works of Vincent Baker, Ben Robbins, Avery McDaldno, and Emily Care Boss. These talents have written accessible, elegant games that produce great stories. They are called, appropriately, Story Games. D&D, and other beasts like it are usually known as “traditional RPG’s.”

For a while, I had tried my hand at writing games of my own in the new style (and some of them I might eventually share on Castle Mordrigault, after some polishing). When I first moved to Northampton, I was lucky enough to be invited to a game designers workshop, featuring some of the people I mentioned. I worked on a game called Exodus of the Kiwa, a game about community, travel and hardship (and lobsters). I never got it to a place that I was happy with, but who knows, in this time of renewed creative energy, maybe I’ll come back to it.

Tabletop RPG’s are likely going to be a subject I return to, a lot, on this blog. My forays into freelancing have been for a tabletop gaming company, many of my creative projects relate to it in some form or another. It’s a part of who I am, and probably always will be.

Image courtesy of Benjamin Esham, Creative Commons

ChoiceScript

SpaceButts

My third post about interactive fiction, we now take a closer look at ChoiceScript! This is the creation of the talented team at Choice of Games, the leaders of the new wave of popular IF. I first discovered them when some of their games became available on Steam, and they were quite a hit! Choice of Games (lets abbreviate that to CoG) produces finely written, narrative-focused games that feel a little bit like the old choose-your-own-adventure books. They read almost like novels, with different choices presented at the end of the text (or for each page). The writers at CoG include many published authors, and they all have at least some experience in writing top-notch IF.

What indisputably puts CoG titles in the “games” camp is the ability to program stats, skills, or qualities into the character that you play. This feature has been implemented in different ways for many of the games I’ve tried. Most of them have a basic set of abilities that are tied closely to the game’s world. In Choice of Broadsides for example (certainly one of the best), you have a range of skills including Sailing, Gunnery, Tact, and Honor. Another of the most popular and well-reviewed titles is the Heroes Rise Trilogy, which uses this subsystem to measure the strength of your relationships and connections to powerful groups, as well as your ability to be a badass superhero. Unlike Storynexus, these abilities are not used in contests of chance (Storynexus games are like rolling dice). You make an investment in a certain ability, and it opens up new paths in your story. Consistency is almost always rewarded.

I’ve played a lot of CoG titles, and I think they’re worth a little more space for reviews than I gave for other the other IF programs. So, without further ado –

  • Choice of Broadsides (Adam Strong-Morse, Heather Albano, Dan Fabulich)- As I mentioned before, this is one of the best, and I have enjoyed several play-throughs. It’s an alternate history tale of naval adventure and intrigue. You are the commander of a ship in the navy of a thinly-disguised United Kingdom. The game follows you over the course of years as you rise through the ranks, and battle the cunning naval officers of “Gaul”. For a fun twist, try playing the game as a female, and see the roles reverse as you join your fellow ladies of the sea in defense of the matriarchal Queendom of Albion.
  • Choice of Romance: Affairs of the Court (Heather Albano and Adam Strong-Morse) – This one is a full trilogy, and it’s also one of my favorites. Similar to Broadsides, it takes place in a fantasy setting that is very much like Western Europe (in this case Spain). It also features magic, although it’s pretty low-key and serves the plot well. The characters are well-written and complex, and the intricacy of court life and politics will keep you fully engaged (hopefully, if not, beware the guillotine). I also found myself very invested emotionally in my character, in a way that I didn’t always find with other CoG games (I guess the title says it all).
  • Creatures Such as We (Lynnea Glasser) – This is one that really stands apart from the rest of CoG’s milieu. You are a tour-guide working at a base on the Moon. You have to entertain a group of game designers as they visit for a special retreat. This is game has a real philosophical bent, and the fun comes from getting to know your clients and figuring out how they tick (and falling in love with at least one of them). There are plenty of interesting dialogues involving games, media, the relationship between player, game, designer, and what one owes to the other. By the end I was thinking deeply on subjects I had never really given much thought to before. And I was impressed with the writer’s open-minded approach to subjects like gender identity and trans issues. This is one of the few games you’ll find that includes a diverse range of genders available during character creation, although I wished it had a bigger effect on the story.
  • Choice of the Vampire (Jason Stevan Hill) – I’m including this one, even though I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I was drawn to it because I’m a big fan of Vampire: the Masquerade, and this story was described as being heavy on intrigue and politics. It has great mood and atmosphere, and the scope is epic (you live a vampire’s un-life for nearly 100 years). The problem I had with it was the same problem that was endemic to many VtM campaigns: you often feel like your choices don’t matter, and there’s nothing you can do to affect the story. I finished the game feeling like a complete screw-up of a vampire, and no matter how many times I replayed it, it didn’t get much better. Still, I enjoyed it overall. The sequel was, unfortunately, even more disappointing.

Honorable mention goes to: Psy-High (the first one I tried), the Heroes Rise Trilogy, and Tin Star. Most of these games you can at least demo on the website (some of them might be free). Try them out! If you have a tablet or even a smartphone, there’s nothing better than curling up with one of these games, and walking the many paths.

See you next time!

Image is Creative Commons, courtesy of James Vaughan

More Fun Times Being an Unofficial Drama Teacher

WispyWiggins

Taking a break from IF, here are some more fun games that I’ve been trying out with my group of kids. This one that I’ll be outlining has been a sure-fire success at camp. It’s simple, adaptable, and fun. In fact it’s been popular enough with my regular group that they complain when I make them try out new games, instead of the old favorites.

The Case of the Stolen Diamond

This is a variation on the basic model for murder-mysteries, with a more nonviolent approach. And no-one gets murdered, so maybe that’s not a good comparison. Anyway, here’s how you play –

  1. Start by explaining to the group that you’ll be acting out a mystery story. One player will role-play a detective, the rest will be potential suspects. You, as the facilitator, will be a maitre d’ at a fancy hotel, and help run the game. The story goes that a large and valuable diamond was recently stolen from the city museum (I am fond of calling it “the Montenegrin Diamond“). The thief was nearly caught escaping from the museum, and is believed to be hiding in the hotel (usually the Grand Ritz). All the suspects staying at the hotel have been locked in at the ballroom, to be interviewed by a detective.
  2. This game requires the facilitator to write up “secrets” for each suspect, which should be written on little scraps of paper, easily concealed. These secrets are really just guidelines for role-playing, and are designed to make everyone look as shifty as possible. One of them will of course say, “You stole the Diamond!” The rest should encourage them to be behave in a strange or suspicious way. I start off the game by choosing the detective, then I pass out the secrets randomly (although you may want to hand them out based on who you think fits the secret best). Here are some secrets I commonly use –
  • You enjoy lying to strangers, just for the thrill of it.
  • You didn’t steal the diamond, but you did recently rob a bank.
  • You are a vampire. Blah!
  • You hate police, and you refuse to say a word to them.
  • You are a Russian spy, and you don’t want to blow your cover!
  • You are just a really grouchy, mean person.

3. (Optional) If you have time, and you think it would be fun, have every player come up with a name for their characters (or cover identities), a basic description of who they are, and what they do.

4. With everyone initially seated, explain the story, and introduce the detective. Explain that they will ask everyone a series of questions, and ultimately arrest the one they think is the culprit. The suspects’ only job is to act their secrets out as best as they can. Have everyone stand, and socialize!

5. For most of the game, the players stand around the room and chat in-character. The detective must speak to everyone, and ask them basic questions, such as: “Where were you were at the time? How long have you been staying at the hotel? Do do you like cats or dogs better?” And so on. The maitre d’ should keep everyone talking and roleplaying.

6. Occasionally, the maitre d’ can shut off the lights, and pretend to get a phone call from the police chief, delivering some clues to help identify the thief. Assuming you know who the thief actually is, you should include some vague details about his or her physical appearance, like “they had brown hair!” Or “they were wearing blue!” It should be ambiguous enough that you don’t eliminate too many suspects, but not so specific that the detective will guess it right away.

7. The game ends when the detective decides to sit everyone down and make their accusation. He or she should go through each suspect, and briefly explain why they are not the thief. When they arrive at their actual suspect, they can dramatically point a finger and send the suspect to prison. The maitre d’ should then shut off the lights, explain that the game has ended, and that the suspect is now in prison. The thief should then reveal themselves (whether they were accused or not).

That’s it, have fun with it! I find that for immersion, it helps to serve actual snacks or juice during the game (you wouldn’t want the hotel guests to be uncomfortable after all). Music is also very helpful, I particularly favor Angelo Badalamenti, of Twin Peaks fame.

See you next time!

Image from the Library of Congress, no known copyright restrictions.

Storynexus

rubbery

Greetings Delicious Friends!

Once again, we dive into interactive fiction. For this post I’m going to focus on the works of Failbetter Games, and their unforgettable Fallen London setting. The game Fallen London, formerly known as Echo Bazaar, puts you in the role of an escaped prisoner exploring the dark, surreal, and often hilarious underground city. It’s the actual Victorian London of the 1890’s, but it was stolen by bats and brought to the underworld. It was terribly inconvenient for everyone.

I can’t stop playing this game. I first heard about it when the company released a spin-off game called Sunless Sea on Steam, first launched in early-access beta. Sunless Sea sounded interesting, but I prefer to play finished games. It takes place in the same world as Fallen London, and uses many of the same storytelling mechanics, so I figured I’d give the original a try first. And it was free.

Neathy Delights

Fallen London uses a program called Storynexus. It’s weird, different, and doesn’t feel anything like the other IF programs out there. For one thing, it’s meant to be played on a browser. Some of you might remember Kingdom of Loathing? It’s a bit like that. You have a limited number of actions per session (which prevents junkies like me from playing for too long). Storynexus games use “cards” which can be either random, or repeatable storylines. These cards are called “storylets,” because they’re tiny, delicious little vignettes, rather than longer continuous narratives. A typical session in Fallen London has you reading through dozens of these little stories, creating the impression of an open, nonlinear narrative, not firmly stuck in time or space.

Fallen London has an interesting origin story, explained in this interview with one of the lead writers (it was a Twitter game). It has since grown into one of the biggest (if not the biggest) IF worlds in history. There are thousands of storylets to explore, millions of words to read, and I’m pretty sure you can’t even see everything in just one game. Like I said, it’s different from other kinds of IF I’ve tried because it really feels like a living, breathing world that you can roam around in as you please. If it were a role-playing game (which it kind of is) it would be mostly made of side-quests. There is a main story-line to follow (or rather, there are four of them), but these are meant to progress very slowly, and with a lot of work to move them along.

It also supports more complex, RPG-like sub-systems that other IF programs lack. Your character in Fallen London (and any Storynexus game) is composed of “Qualities,” some of which are story details (like “On the Trail of the Cheesemonger”), statistics that measure how effective you are (Dangerous, Persuasive), or actual items and equipment (the Exceptional Hat, the Salt Weasel). You can use these qualities to unlock stories, or just feel more awesome in your samurai armor and elegant top hat. Part of the fun of the game is hunting down and collecting these items and qualities. I’ll never forget the day I bought my tiger.

Other Storynexus Games

Failbetter released the Storynexus engine to the community, and there are a number of fine games that have been written by fans. These are nearly all labors of love created by community members, so they’re not as polished as Fallen London, but I find that they’re usually more diverse and interesting than other fan games. Notable mention goes to –

  • Zero Summer – A somewhat surreal, post-apocalyptic Western. There’s a good amnesia story, a large world to explore, and a more cohesive narrative than you usually see in Storynexus.
  • The Thirst Frontier – Strange, sad, poetic science fiction. I haven’t played enough of this to even properly tell you what it’s about, but I was impressed enough with the writing that it’s definitely worth a look.
  • Below – A game about dungeon exploration, with original art and graphics. Challenging, fun, and tells a fine story of magic and mystery, in spite of it’s dungeon crawl presentation.

I also spent some time working on my own Storynexus game about the Byzantine Empire, in the year 1198, called the Purple Chamber. It was meant to be an open-world game in a similar vein to Fallen London, and also an exercise to teach myself the workings of the program. It was perhaps a bit too ambitious, and I don’t know if I’ll return to it anytime soon. You can try out the beginning stories here (I’ve currently only worked on the “Intriguing” story-lines).

Before signing off, I should also mention that Failbetter’s Sunless Sea is complete, and is truly a game worthy of your time. It features the same top-notch writing that it’s browser counterpart has, combined with a fun system for trading, exploring, and shooting things with cannons.

I now bid you a fond farewell, or as London’s Rubbery Men would say, THIRILTHITHOROOTH!!!

Image courtesy of the wonderful and talented Abi Nighthill

Interactive Fiction!

11254352304_62629ee3c2_o

Ah! The joys of interactive fiction! Today I would like to share some thoughts and information on interactive fiction games (hereafter referred to as IF). I love this stuff, and it’s one of the mediums I hope to one day break into as a freelancer.

IF has been around for a long time, back in the seventies it was one of the first kinds of computer games available. It has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, but always maintained a strong underground following, especially when the internet became a thing. When I was a kid (in the 90’s, the glorious 90’s), this sort of thing was actually popular. From the time of it’s inception, to when IF exploded on the internet, it was usually very puzzle and exploration oriented. You had to get ye flask, and have a ridiculously large inventory, and sometimes take actual notes. It was a little cumbersome, but offered a fun experience nevertheless.

Nowadays, the medium has changed with the advent of new, user-friendly (and free!) programming platforms. I’m going to talk about a few of them, and maybe give a little mini-review for my favorite games. They are: Inform, Storynexus, Twine, and ChoiceScript. In general, these programs have caused IF to shift towards less puzzle-solving, and more narrative elements, with a little bit of RPG game-play mixed in.

Inform

Inform is older than the rest, and the kind of work that Inform authors have done is usually more old-school in it’s approach. I’ve never tried coding in Inform (because I suck at coding), but I’ve heard it’s easy enough to learn and get into. The Inform community is made up of kind, creative, and very intelligent people, and they have produced some excellent games over the years. They are the ones who originally organized the Interactive Fiction Competition, which is still chuggin’ on. Inform uses what is called a “parser,” which is where you type in commands to interact with the world (like “get ye flask”). It’s very traditional, and some Inform games are just like the classics from the 20th century. But there have been hundreds of creations, some are more experimental, some are just damn good stories. Here are some of my favorites –

  • Galatea, by Emily Short – A game that revolves entirely around one conversation with an animated statue, the character from Greek myth. Galatea is a fascinating, complex woman, one of the best-written in any game that I’ve encountered. Galatea has dozens of different endings, and a practically infinite number of combinations with each attempt at conversing. It’s addictive, and has some superb writing. Emily Short is a very accomplished IF writer, and a brilliant critic and thinker. Check out her site! You can play Galatea here.
  • Photopia, by Adam Cadre – This one is very focused on narrative (so is Galatea actually). You don’t do much but follow the clues, and read an amazing story as you go. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, and I’ll never forget the first time I played it. Try it out here.
  • Anchorhead, by Michael S. Gentry – Anchorhead is different from the other two, in that it has some very difficult puzzles, and a huge environment to explore. It’s a chilling tale of Lovecraftian horror, set in an isolated seaside town in New England. I tend to get quickly frustrated with IF games that are built around the old model of explore/collect items/solve ridiculous puzzles, but this one does such a good job of building atmosphere, and creating a rich world to explore. You can play it here. Sooner or later, you might want a walkthrough.

Most (if not all) Inform games are free to play online. There’s also an excellent app for those of you with tablets or smartphones called Frotz. CHECK IT OUT.

Next time, I’ll delve into the strange and wonderful worlds of Storynexus, as well as it’s flagship game (and current obsession of mine), Fallen London.

Images from The British Library – no known copyright restrictions

The Prince/Princess of ________

ThePrinceof_____

I’ve helped with running a summer camp in Amherst for the third year in a row now. I’ve always kind of used it as a laboratory for trying out new games and activities with the kids. The first year, we stuck with pretty traditional improv and drama games. These were meant to be fun, and more process-oriented. In my first post I mentioned part of my background in creative drama. I studied it in college, and it’s a great tool for educators. It differs from formal “drama” or “theater” education in that it usually isn’t building towards some kind of final performance or product. It’s more like structured play, in which you simply explore something within a set of rules or guidelines.

In a classroom, that “something” is often a book, a story, a scientific concept, or some kind of problem that a group has to solve. The method for acting all this out is almost always improvisational, although if you’re dramatizing a storybook, that might not be the case. The games I play with my summer camp/after-school kids usually don’t have any kind of curriculum behind them (they would sniff that out in a second). My games are more about having fun, being ridiculous, and hopefully building a love for theater in the long run.

Last summer I tried to put on an actual play, and it was a total disaster. Our camp has this whimsical, free-wheeling philosophy where we encourage the children to make their own choices about how they want to structure their day. In theory, it sounds great (and in a lot of ways it is), but if you’ve ever tried to direct a group of kids in a play before, I’m sure this sounds like big trouble to you. Such was my sense of hubris. The thing is, I have directed kids before, many times. It’s challenging, often frustrating, but very satisfying in the end. The thing is, all of those times it was at a different camp, a performing arts camp. The system was backing me up there, but last year I was at the mercy of children’s attention spans. If they didn’t like what they were doing, they could leave. And leave they did. And argue. And throw tantrums. It was a lot like many of my college productions actually. By the end, we decided to scrap the whole thing and make a mockumentary about the making of the play. That was way more fun, and easier to pull off. It was really funny, and I’d upload it, but there’s privacy to consider.

This year I’ve returned to the Creative Drama roots, and tried out a bunch of new games that my regular group has been having a blast with. And I want to share some of them! To the kids, I refer to games like these as “story drama” or “story games.” I’m not sure how to appropriately categorize them, but they resemble many existing party games, LARPs, murder-mysteries or theatrical warm-ups. One thing I love about theater is how it’s definitions tend to make it blend into other disciplines, or even other mediums. I still have never tried live-action roleplaying, though I’ve always wanted to. That to me describes these games pretty well though, a game, a story, an improvised theatrical production, all happening at once. One that I tried out recently, which was a hit, we named “The Prince/Princess of ________.” Here’s what you need –

  • A group of at least 3, although many more is preferable. I ran the game with a mixed age group, about a dozen kids, ages 7-10.
  • Some wicked fancy costumes.
  • Some kind of chair, the bigger and more cushy the better.
  • The adult in the group will be teaching and facilitating, and they might find a pencil and paper useful.

How to Run the Game

  1. In phase one, choose one group member to act out the role of the Prince or Princess. This is the ruler of an imaginary city, with lots of problems. I explained to my group that “a long long time ago” the country of Italy was composed of many city-states that were ruled by Princes. My group is mostly sassy little girls, so we ended up with a Princess. My preferred method for choosing the Princess was with a blind majority vote from the whole group. You might find other methods more effective, including just choosing one yourself as a facilitator, randomly or otherwise. Everyone else will role-play advisers and courtiers.
  2. Phase two, come up with a name for your city. In various iterations of the game, we came up with Florencia, Rosetta, and Beefcastle (I let the boys pick the name one day, since they were always a minority vote).
  3. Phase three, come up with at least two factions. Explain to the group that a faction is a group of like-minded individuals who want the Princess to act a certain way, and change the way the city is run. If you’re looking to explore certain ideas with your kids, you might want to make the factions pre-set. War and Peace are good ones (which we’ve tried), Rich and Poor, Art and Money. If you’re letting them brainstorm their own factions, try to encourage idealistically opposed groups.
  4. Phase four, your job as a facilitator is to role-play a master of ceremonies, who organizes the functions of the Princess’s Court. The game is structured around “the order of the day,” in which you present a problem to the Princess. The problem can be anything you can imagine, but it needs to have clear choices which are tied to the factions. For example, in our very first game, we had a War faction and a Fashion faction (I let them come up with their own). One problem that I presented the court with was the threat of an invading army. The choices were as follows: we can meet them on the field of battle, or we can buy them off with some of our finest suits and dresses. The job of the Princess finally comes into play here; only she can make the decision. If you have trouble improvising situations, then I recommend using fixed factions, and writing up some problems for the group beforehand.
  5. Allow the group a few minutes to argue in favor of their factions, speak with the Princess, and make their voices heard. This part is chaotic, but fun, and some interesting situations can emerge from it. I found that I never really had to intervene too much in organizing the debate. The speakers naturally emerged from their factions, and those who didn’t want to speak found that quietly influencing the speakers was a good way to take part. There were times when it was helpful to simply take turns so that each member of the court had their say, if they wanted one.
  6. The Princess makes her decision, the facilitator narrates the outcome, Rinse and Repeat. I would usually pretend to read a letter from a messenger, with a dramatic flourish. The actual outcome doesn’t matter all that much, unless you’re playing for points (see below). After going through this cycle (introduce problem, argue, make a decision, deliver outcome), it helps to have a little recess, in which the kids can just role-play their characters and goof off. Sometimes having an actual snack, or cups and juice, can sweeten the deal.

Problems to Watch Out For

Be careful of the social dynamics in your group. As fun as role-playing European court politics can be, it can get a little… back-stabby. Make sure that there is no discussion beforehand in the group if you’re voting in the Prince/Princess. Don’t let your group form actual cliques and voting blocks, that’s just for the role-playing. If this is a problem in your group, consider either exercising tighter control on choosing the Prince/Princess role, or using one of the variations below.

If any of your kids decide they want to leave a faction and join another one, or form a new one, let them. Just explain that a faction only needs one person, numbers don’t matter, only the Princess’s decision.

Variations

Playing for Points: It can be exciting to make the Princess feel a bit threatened in her position, so these rules can be introduced to amp up the intrigue. When you deliver the outcome of the Princess’s decision, you need to designate one option as the “right” option (and it should clearly be the best outcome). If the Princess chooses the right option, she gets a point. If she doesn’t choose correctly, the point goes to the faction who represents the right option. At the end of the game (you can end it whenever, but at least three cycles is probably good), see who has the most points. If the Princess has the most, she remains on the throne. If one of the factions take over, she is dethroned, and that faction now runs the city! Let them role-play that how they like, but end the game before they start arguing about “the new Princess!”

The Republic: Instead of Italian city-states, this is more inspired by Italian merchant republics. Choose a group of children to act as a ruling council for the city, at least three. The decision-making process now becomes a vote. You can still play with points for this variation if you like, it just means one faction becomes dominant at the end. We came up with this idea when one girl declared the Princess’s decisions unjust, and that the people were not being represented. Nothing really came of it, but we had a good discussion about it afterwards.

You might notice that there isn’t really a process here for creating names or identities for the children playing. I usually don’t do that, because I often work within a limited time frame. But having your group come up with names and personalities for their courtiers is a great idea, and will help immerse themselves in the game. It just takes a while. Try it if you have the time!

Anyway, that’s all! I hope you find this writeup useful, or at least interesting! Until next time –