Last week I had a party for about forty friends, many of whom didn’t already know each other but most of whom know me through some sort of game or story-related interest. A few others were people I thought didn’t know much about storygaming of any kind, but might enjoy an accessible, casual taster.
So I put together a small narrative game for the occasion. The design goals were to create something that would get people talking to strangers; that would take just a few minutes to participate in, but let people invest more time if they wanted to; that was playable even if you had a plate of food in one hand; that wouldn’t be ruined if some people arrived late or weren’t into playing; and that would produce a souvenir after the party.
The result of this project was San Tilapian Studies.
CALL FOR PAPERS IN SAN TILAPIAN STUDIES
The verdant duchy of San Tilapia once bordered Ruritania in eastern Europe, but it has long since been annexed to larger nations.
For some decades after its annexation, the evidence of its culture was housed in the People’s Museum of Tilapian Decadence, but in time even the museum was razed. The diagrams of its hereditary folk dances, burned. The duchess’ wedding porcelain, smashed.
Scholars in San Tilapian Studies must now make do with fragmentary attestations in letters, diaries, and newspaper reports describing the items that the museum once contained.
But all is not lost! You’re a disciplined and exacting young scholar with tenure to earn. It’s time to piece together the museum’s collection.
COLLECT YOUR EVIDENCE. Take the uppermost slip in the pile of evidence slips. It will bear two fragments of evidence that you have discovered.
Brown stickers represent objects, such as “a loaf of bread”.
Cream stickers represent qualities, such as “very large” or “skeletal”.
Lavender stickers represent functions or effects, such as “ended the war”.
COMPARE NOTES WITH OTHER SCHOLARS. In conference with the holders of other evidence, piece together the description of one object you believe used to belong in the museum.
You may find that the first scholars you speak with do not have any information that corresponds well with yours, so feel free to circulate and compare notes until you find a description that resonates with you.
Your team will need one brown, one cream, and one lavender sticker to complete the description, so you will only use one of the two stickers on your evidence slip. In collaboration with others, you will need to decide which of your two stickers contains an accurate description of a genuine artifact and which is a vile forgery.
It is allowed, though of course not required, for your artifact to relate somehow to other artifacts or events already attested in the catalog, if at the time of your research the catalog is already partly filled in.
ADD YOUR REPORT TO THE CATALOG. On a fresh page of the catalog, apply the three stickers describing the item you and your colleagues have rediscovered.
You may also write some sentences of explanation, as well as supplying any sketched images, footnotes, etc. that you feel will help readers understand the significance of the artifact you have reconstructed. We have provided pens and other paper items that may prove relevant, but the best method of interpretation is up to you.
TAKE CREDIT! Sign the names of the team who reconstructed this object.
- one Japanese Album Moleskine notebook (the thickness of the paper and the fact that people could use one or several folds of the book made it easier to prevent accidentally bleeding through onto or crowding someone else’s work)
- 90 custom-printed round stickers, sorted so that two stickers appeared on each slip of backing paper (thus there were 45 slips: 15 bearing a pair of brown “object” stickers, 15 bearing cream “adjective” stickers, and 15 with lavender “function” stickers)
- pens in assorted colors
- four printed copies of the rules
- small selection of paper ephemera such as photos, decorative papers, and postcards loosely themed around early 20th century Europe
- double-sided tape, several rolls, for adding ephemera to the book
The finished book contains anecdotes ranging in length from a sentence to several pages, as well as a few other curiosities — a few sketches, a rhymed folk song, and an unsigned entry on a scrap of paper tucked into the back pocket of the notebook. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say any coherent history emerges, there’s a fairly consistent thematic feel to the thing. Towards the end of the party, people who had particularly enjoyed the exercise started collecting up unused stickers and did a couple extra bonus rounds for fun.
For the most part I feel San Tilapian Studies hit its design goals. It could have been a bit more aggressive in forcing strangers to interact if I’d controlled who wound up with which color of sticker — for instance, it would theoretically have been possible to make sure that all the friends from one friend group got brown stickers and all the friends from another got cream stickers, so they had to talk to one another — but this would have required a much more aggressive administration of the game and I think would not have been especially fun either for the cats or for the person herding them. As it was I just arranged the sticker slips so that they rotated brown-cream-lavender so that there would be an even distribution of people holding relevant slips at any given time.
Also, obviously a lot of the equipment decisions were based around the goal of having a souvenir at the end of it. The same mechanics would have been served using just scraps of paper pinned to a board, for instance, or taped to a big sheet of butcher paper. But I really like having the book as a reminder afterwards, and I feel it would have been a shame to lose the output.
I also had fun making up the sticker set in the first place, via a process of brainstorm-then-cull. I came up with somewhat longer than necessary lists of objects, then ran some random text generation with the different elements and noted which objects, adjectives, etc. seemed to go badly with others a majority of the time. Obviously part of the fun is that not every adjective could sensibly modify every noun, but especially hard-to-match elements were just going to be annoying to people. I also tried to avoid naming specific characters, preferring to allow people to decide who was involved in a given scenario. And of course, the two-items-per-person rule was a final defense against bad assortments; players could ignore something they just thought was too boring or too hard to match up.