Monday, May 16, 2016

Keeton's Journey is a pressure cooker for role playing

Keeton's Journey is my favorite game that came out of the Free RPG Blog's 2013 Harder Than Granite competition. The contest inspired me to write about different entries for a week and I saved what I think is the best for last. While it does make some interesting use of dice, it is the structure of the game that makes me appreciate Keeton's Journey.

In Keeton's Journey, one player plays a wandering medicine man named Keeton who travels from village to villages, helping them deal with mysterious supernatural life forms called yokai. One player plays Keeton while everyone plays villagers. While Keeton is there to deal with the yokai, the problems will always be intertwined with the secrets and lies of the villagers.

It's based on Mushishi, a manga I've never read. However, Keeton's Journey does remind me of Dogs in the Vineyard, Princes' Kingdom or Kagematsu. In each case, an outsider has come to solve an isolated population's problems with a strong focus on character development and story.

Setup for the game is quick and straightforward. You'll need a regular pip die for every villager and some paper and pencils. At the start of the game, the villagers come up with a rough description of the village and their roles in the village. They also need to each come up with an important secret they keep.

Gameplay has a fairly strict structure. Keeton has an introductory scene with each villager. Other villagers can appear in that scene but it is that player's spotlight scene. There is then a second round of scenes, heightening and escalating there situation. The outcome of these scenes will determine if the village can be saved, with the game ending on an appropriate epilogue.

So, here's the mechanics. At the start of each round, all the dice will get rolled. At the end of each scene, a die will be used to determine a dramatic revelation or action that will end the scene.

It gets even more interesting that that. It doesn't matter what the number is, per se, but what kind of picture the pips form. Two and three represent the Path, pushing people forward. Four and six represent the Box, when people close themselves off. Five is the Crossroads, tough decisions. Lastly, one is the Loner, isolation.

In the second round, choosing the Path or the Crossroads means you reveal your secret. Choosing the Box or the Loner means you keep your secret. At the end of the game, if more people reveal their secret, Keeton is able to deal with the yokai and save the village. 

Yes, that means that the dice rolls will determine if the village is saved or not. And guess what, that doesn't matter. That isn't why you play a narrative-driven game like this. The reward of a game like Keeton's Journey is how you tell the story and a well-told tragic ending can be immensely satisfying.

Part of this is because, outside of the restrictions of the dice, there is immense freedom in what kind of story you want to tell. There is only the illusion of restriction. Instead, the structure in a narrative game helps guide you and keep you focused. The structure is a tool for you to use.

In other words, Keeton's Journey is the kind of game I've come to really enjoy after discovering and exploring the world of indie RPGs.

I like how Keeton's Journey is well designed for a low prep one-shot that still has room for deep and meaningful role playing. With just two rounds of scenes an experienced group of players could finish a game in three to four hours. Less experienced players, I'm guessing two to three hours. (Less experienced narrative players will probably have shorter scenes) I can even see breaking it down into two little sessions with ease.

Keeton's Journey isn't brilliant, although the dice symbolism is a really good idea. It is a game with a structure that I know works and creates some really great story telling. It takes many of the lessons I've learned about indie game design and story telling and puts them in a tiny, pocket-sized pamphlet, perfect for a one-off night of gaming and story telling.

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