Thursday, September 27, 2018

Sometimes the point is to NOT nuke Atlantis

Well, I have to eat my words about Stoke-Birmingham 0-0. When I first read it, I couldn’t ever imagine playing it. The whole concept of game poems, which it coined the phrase, was one that I questioned.

Thanks to the power of forums, I have now played it. To be sure, playing via forum definitely takes away from immediacy that is clearly a key part of the game poem concept. On the other hand, gathering folks together to play a fifteen minute game is a tough sell and playing via forum definitely helps mitigate that.

And not only am I glad that I finally played Stoke-Birmingham, I would play it again.

Stoke-Birmingham 0-0 has you simulate being some Stoke supporters who are drinking after a really boring game. The game lasts fifteen minutes when you play it live and one of the most important rules is that you are not to say or do anything interesting. The point of the game is to embrace the banal.

At this point, I have played a variety of narrative games. There is a term that is actually in the rules of Microscope, one of my favorite narrative games, Nuking Atlantis. Microscope has a global scope so the term can be literal in a game. That’s doing something extreme, a story changer that permanently affects things.

And I love doing that or seeing it happen. Well, most of the time. I was in a Fiasco game set in the Wild West where a weaselly gambler at the very end decided that he was secretly a mystic kung fu guy, summoned up a giant golden dragon and flew through a magical portal to join in the battle of Helm’s Deep. (Yes, he had a ton of white dice)

There was something amazing in the audacity of that but that’s not what you play Fiasco for. We will never forget that game but that derailed the game so hard that the proverbial train not only left the tracks but flew straight into the sun. We all agreed we had witnessed some kind of spontaneous magic and we never wanted it to happen again in a game of Fiasco.

Nuking Atlantis can be an exhilarating choice but a key element of Stoke-Birmingham is that it is the non-Nuking Atlantis RPG. The rules explicitly state that you can’t do anything interesting. You are embodying dull people doing dull things. (I wonder what real life Stoke supporters would think of it)

And you know what? That’s a legitimate challenge and trying to no be interesting becomes interesting in its own way. It’s an unusual space to explore, bored sports fans drinking, but as you explore it, you find there is something to explore. Looking back at our game, I felt like we were embracing our inner Raymond Carver and inner Breece D’J Pancake.

Stokes-Birmingham 0-0 was the first game to use the term Game Poem, although I bet you can find earlier games that can retroactively fit the bill. For me, a game poem should ideally try to evoke one specific idea/emotion. It is such a short form that it can only be a snapshot, only has one bullet to fire.

Exploring the banal and the dull seems like an odd place for what became its own RPG form to start. However, by taking us there and showing us how it could be interesting and engaging, Stokes-Birmingham proves how much we can do with game poems.

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