And The Winners Are!

Once again, I apologize for my tardiness in getting all of this done. But, finally, all votes have been counted and all scores have been tallied. Here are the winners of the 2007 BibliOdyssey Design Challenge!

Best Integration Of Images: The City At The Edge Of Sleep, by Mike Addison, with a total average score in the category of 8/10. Followed by:

  • Troll Lands (7.8)
  • Once More (6.8)
  • In Inordinate Fondness & Dark Explorations (6)
  • Friends or Fortune & In Frankensteins Wake (5)

Most Playable: In Frankenstein’s Wake, by Eric Boyd, with a total average score in the category of 8.5/10. Followed by:

  • An Inordinate Fondness (8.3)
  • Once More (7)
  • The City at the Edge of Sleep (6)
  • Friends or Fortune (5.5)
  • Troll Lands (4.6)
  • Dark Explorations (4)

Best Overall: In Frankenstein’s Wake also had the highest score in the category, with a total average of 7.25. As a game cannot take more than one title, the next highest was a three-way tie! The City at the Edge of Sleep, An Inordinate Fondness and Once More all received a score of 7. As City at the Edge of Sleep is also ineligible, the official winners of this category are both An Inordinate Fondness, by Mark Villianatos and Once More, by Mendel Schmiedekamp! The other scores:

  • Troll Lands (5.6)
  • Friends or Fortune (5.5)
  • Dark Explorations (5)

Congratulations to Mike, Eric, Mark and Mendel! I look forward to playing your games!

The individual pages will be updated with their scores and review links real soon now. There’s also a thread at StoryGames to talk about the winners, and the contest in general.

Thanks everyone!

Review: The City at the Edge of Sleep

In Short…

The City at the Edge of Sleep is Mike Addison’s game of dreamworld adventure and identity creation. I really dig the Event framework and how the mechanics of the game really shape the position of your character relative to the setting and situation. While I have a couple of severe reservations (mainly about Shaping rolls), I think that this game had a lot of potential to shape up (heh) into a really great short-form story game.

Incorporation of Images

I really like how the game was very much written from the images. It’s a bit hard to explain, but as I read the text, I had a very strong sense that the images and the text were integrated, like they had grown out of each other. The fact that the images were chosen before the text was written means that I think Mike did a fantastic job using them to inspire his game. It’s not that the images are used particularly well in a graphic design sense, but they really show the world that he describes in a useful fashion, and I think it’s great.


I’m a big fan of constrained/delineated time structures for play, and I think the Event framework gives a strong backbone to the three-act structure of play. While Events may not be implemented as well as they could be, they serve to give needed structure to what could otherwise be a very chaotic playspace. I was reminded of Don’t Rest Your Head for a number of reasons (theme being the obvious one, though this game certainly takes a different tack on the genre), but one of them is that the initial character questionnaire in DRYH serves the same purpose as Events in CatEoS (hows that for an acronym!), but from the opposite side of play.

In any case, the Events give me some solid ground for running this game right out of the box. That said, I feel like the exact structure and scope of Events may need to shift (be either looser and vaguer, or more solid and specific) in order to drive play in a more meaningful fashion, but thats a big question for playtesting.

The other thing I want to touch on is Shaping rolls. I have one huge reservation about how they work, and thats that the GM chooses which traits you use. I think this is a problem mainly because the GM has a lot of explicit power in this game, and the players relatively little. Making something that is both historically and intuitively a huge player choice (how their character addresses a problem or conflict) something that’s ALSO under the domain of the GM treads dangerously close to, and perhaps over, the line between “active participant” and “passively being entertained”

Finally, I think that Shaping could have more “texture.” As is, it’s a little flat, especially when the rest of the game is mainly free narration. I think making more mechanical toys to play with when Shaping would make the process of play that much more grabby.


I really like this game, and I want to play it right now. I’m a sucker for this kind of game (I’m a big DRYH fan, for example), and the procedures of play hit a lot of my play preference buttons as well. Other than what I’ve mentioned above, there’s one more thing that would really make play of this game more fun for me, and that’s an increased attention to character development. I’ll expand below, but the bottom line is, I really hope you dedicate some time and attention to developing this game, Mike. I really like it.

Further Thoughts

So, I think that the three-act structure is keen, and I think there’s more room to develop within it. Three-act stories tend to involve characters that go through definite and clear character arcs within them (think of, like, all good movies and plays) Right now, the only character development mechanism in the game is the gradual regaining of memories, which is cool, but is really mostly an exploration of backstory. It certainly informs the game you’re playing, but it’s also all stuff that happened in the past, not right now.

The opposed scores for your character stats are a good germ for this, I believe. I think that having those scores shift over the course of play would both help add texture to the resolution system (which I think is good), and serve as a focus for paying attention to your characters actions and Shaping. I can see cool things happening with either you changing your stats, maybe at the ends of Acts or as the result of failed (or successful) Shaping rolls, or for your stats changing as the perceptions of others change. Maybe it requires a Shaping contest to change, or preserve, your stats. Anyhow, I hope this makes sense, and that you put some thought into this while playtesting.

And you will be playtesting it. Oh yes. Oh yes.


Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 1:34 am  Comments (1)  


I’ve submitted my final draft to Nathan. Man, does it feel good to be done!

I doubt anyone cares, but here are some numbers:
The end product is 5 chapters, for a total of about 30 pages. I probably spent about 16 hours total actually writing the draft over the course of the last week, and an additional 5 hours or so polishing and formatting this afternoon.

Good luck to everyone still writing. Can’t wait to see everyone else’s games.

Published in: on February 26, 2007 at 2:17 am  Comments (1)  

The Idea Progresses

Working for a state school has its perks. Thanks to the winter storm that hit the mid-west this week, I was stuck at home Tuesday and Wednesday, free from any work-related stress or obligations. So I spent both days playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. Though it sounds like I squandered a boon of precious writing-hours in what will soon seem like a short two weeks, this was actually a good thing. With a mind free of distractions, doubts, worries, etc., I hit the ground running this morning.

Here’s some new (or at least, expanded) ideas.

Basic Idea:
The players are Shapers, human dreamers that have wandered so far into the world of dreams that they have forgotten their real identities. At the start of the game, the players appear at the outskirts of a magnificent dream city. The Red Lady, a leader among the Dreambarons, implores them to save the city from Impending Doom. In return, she will help them recover their lost memories and identity. (The nature of this bargain is a sticking point right now, bear with me.) As the Shapers seek a way to save the city, they unlock memories of their former selves, slowly discovering their true identities.

Game Structure:
The game is structured in three acts. In the first act, the player characters are introduced, as are the initial problems facing the city, and the nature of the city itself and its denizens. In the second act, as the players uncover more of the mysteries that surround the city, they will be confronted by the Snake Woman, an ancient, primal goddess that seeks the destruction and rebirth of the dream world. In the third act, the characters come to terms with their lost identities, formulate a plan to save or destroy the city, and carry out that plan. Hopefully, the game ends with the revelation of each character’s identity and a satisfying resolution of the fate of the dream city.

Role of Players:
The role of the players is two-fold. Firstly, as Shapers, they are agents of change, and must explore the dream world to learn more about the Dreambarons and discover a way to save or destroy the city. Secondly, as narrators, the players are in charge of revealing their characters’ lost identities to the other participants of the game.

Players may want to decide the identity of their characters at the start of the gamee, or they may optionally improvise their characters’ identities as they go along. The second option could prove more fun, as it allows the players to interweave the identities of their characters together. (As proof of concept: I ran a con session of Tim Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch where the players improvised their character’s Fates as we went. The result was surprisingly satisfying.)

Role of the GM:
The role of the GM is fairly traditional. Using the three-act structure as a guideline, the GM presents encounters to the players, drawing upon a small catalog of possibilities I will provide. The plot of the game could develop in several directions. For instance, the players could try to find answers within the city, where they may need to resolve conflict between rival Dreambarons, or conflict between the Dreambarons and their automaton servants, the Coglings (not married to this particular name). Alternatively, the GM could send them on a quest to find the first Shaper, an eccentric human dreamer that “discovered” the dream world and created the city and its denizens. Lastly, the GM may send the PCs searching for the Sun Stone, a lost relic tied to the original creation (and foretold destruction) of the dream world. For the most part, the GM’s job will consist of presenting and embelishing ideas in the text, adjudicating Shaping rolls (see below for more), and (most importantly) devising consequences for each action the players take.

Character Creation:
Rather than representing characters with a laundry list of skills and abilities, players create a personality to define their characters. A character personality is described by a series of opposed traits: Kind/Cruel, Carefree/Serious, Logical/Emotional, and Strong/Needy. Players have an arbitrary number of dice to divide within each pair (I’m thinking a base of 1 die for each trait, plus 3 dice to split within each pair). During the game, the character’s ability to Shape the dream world is determined by the traits most applicable to the situation (see Mechanics below).

In additional to personality traits, the character’s appearance will be an important part of of character creation. Since the characters exist in a dream world, they can take on any appearance the players desire. A savvy player will use her character’s appearance to convey hints about her character’s identity, or even use it as a red herring to mislead the expectations of the other players. For instance, is the man in the space suit an astronaut, or just a sci-fi fan? Or maybe the beautiful princess in the flowing pink dress is just six-year old girl, imagining herself as she’d like to be.

The game will have two major mechanics: Shaping rolls and a mechanic for regaining Memories.

For the most part, character actions should be resolved through narration. However, when a character attempts an action a) where the outcome is uncertain or b) that conflicts with or changes part of the dream world, the player must make a Shaping roll. It’s important to note that real-world skills are not applicable to the dream world. Even if the characters could remember their former lives, they interface (ugh, bad word) differently with the dream world. To some degree, dream logic prevails here. When the characters want to change something, they dream the change into existence. For instance, let’s say a character encounters a locked door. Rather than relying on locksmithing tools and knowledge of locks, she imagines into existence a machine that disassembles the lock, or a fantastic creature to knock the door down, or simply reshapes the building to suit her purpose.

A Shaping roll is resolved thusly: First, the GM decides which traits apply to roll, depending on what the player wants to do. For example, striking a blow in anger would be Cruel and Emotional, while organizing a library for a scatterbrained Dreambaron would be Logical and Kind. One or more traits can be used for a given roll, but only one trait from an opposed pair may be chosen. Next, the GM decides on a difficulty for the roll, which will probably remain secret to the player for the sake of drama. The player then rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the traits the GM chose, taking the single highest roll as the result. If the player rolls more than one 6, each additional 6 adds one to the final result. If the result is greater than or equal to the difficulty, the player’s action is successful. Otherwise, the GM concocts a suitable consequence that further complicates the scene. To take some of the onus of narration off the shoulders of the GM, I may put together a table of ideas for possible consequences. Though in most cases, the consequences will depending largely on the story the players are telling.

This is probably the fuzziest part of the design so far. As players progress through the story, they will unlock Memories that provide clues to the identity of their characters. Memories respresent little pieces of the character’s self. The stronger the character’s sense of self becomes, the more will they can apply to shape the dream world. So, when a character attempts an action in a scene that relates to a Memory, the Memory can be called upon to add a bonus (an extra die, or even a straight +1 to the total) to Shaping rolls.

Memories are rewarded to players in two ways. First, a player might receive a Memory from the GM as a reward for fulfilling an objective or completing a plot point. Second, a player may risk some sort of resource during a Shaping roll to unlock a Memory. The first option is mostly driven by the GM, which is a bit at odds with the players’ narrative control of their identities. I like the second option better, but it needs development.

I’m thinking about giving each character a pool of Self points. Self would represent the coherency of the dreamer as a person. It would be used in two ways. As a possible consequence of a failed action, a player might lose points of Self, commensurate to the difficulty of the action.

Additionally, it could be used by players as a resource to obtain Memories. During a Shaping roll, players may gamble any number of Self points. Each Self point gambled increases the difficulty of the roll, but also adds dice to the roll. In story terms, it represents the dreamer forcefully exerting his will on the fabric of the dream world, to which the dream world responds in kind. If the roll is successful, the player keeps the Self she gambled and earns a Memory, which she narrates into the scene. (Most likely, the Memory actually manifests itself in the dream world in a way that is visible to the other characters.) If the roll fails, the player loses the Self she risked, and the character becomes a little less “there”.

Finally, if a character loses all of her Self, then she simply fades to part of the dream world, becoming a permanent dream-denizen. If this happens, it might be important to have some way for the player to still participate in the game, even if her character doesn’t have a happy ending.

Okay, that’s it for now. Apologies for the inordinate length and self-indulgence of this post. If you made it this far, you deserve a cookie. No, an entire box of cookies. For my next post, I’ll simply cut & paste the entire text of my rules into the blog (kidding!).

Published in: on February 16, 2007 at 2:11 am  Comments (2)  

‘an inordinant fondness’- Mark’s initial thoughts

… intelligent insect societies have inherited the earth following the extinction of humanity (I suppose in some undefined apocalyptic disaster?). Much of the focus will be on how insects react to, explore the relics of, and misinterpret their human predecessors. Since the bugs are newly sentient they don’t have any sense of history. They don’t remember that humans viewed insects as inconsequential – when they weren’t exterminating. Instead the insect characters will be puzzling out, playing with, and mythologizing the structures and and detritus of vanished human civilizations.

the working title is from an anecdote about the biologist JBS Haldane, who, when asked what one could infer about the creator from studying nature, is reported to have replied ‘He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.’ In the context of this game concept, the phrase also stands in for the insects’ romanticization of humankind.

I’m not sure if the game will be highly structured or more of a traditional exploratory/adventuring rpg. I can picture representing each character by a row of three playing cards- the head, thorax and abdomen. How this mechnically plays out…?

Influences beyond the image set will probably include the book Motel of the Mysteries by david mccauley, the original gamma world rpg and the novel Empire of the ants by bernard werber. I’ve enjoyed help play test Judson Lester’s Repetoire and Jim Pinto’s George’s Children so I’m sure they will influence how I think about a post-apocalyptic game.

Published in: on February 15, 2007 at 3:20 am  Comments (3)  

Initial Thoughts on Tad K’s Image Set

The images in this set paint a surreal world of contradictions: a country manor seated above a metro train station; impossible airships hovering over Victorian cityscapes; torrent skies raging over a stark, orderly skyline.

I’m imagining a world of dreams that exists somewhere on the edge between waking reality and unconscious sleep–the space Salvador Dali would visit with his plate and spoon before painting a masterpiece.

A city stands there, an amalgam of all great cities throughout history. Story upon story of mechanical wonders stretch across the horizon, home to the Dreambarons, a well-mannered people of refined taste and Victorian sense of decorum.

But the city is in danger. Fueled by the dreamstuff from which the world was created, the machines and devices on which the city dwellers depend are draining the life essence from the world, bringing the City closer to its fated end.

On the outskirts of the City dwells a primal entity, the Snake Woman, a fallen goddess far older than the city and its people. The dream world was once hers, and she means to have it back. To her, time is a cycle. What begins, must end. And what ends will be reborn.

Enter the Shapers: human dreamers from our reality who, unlike the living dreams that inhabit the dream world, have the ability to change the fabric of the world through the power of their imaginations.

Are the Shapers the hope for a new future, or the instruments of the city’s destruction?

In game terms, I’m envisioning a story that focuses on consequences. The players are given the role of the Shapers, which comes with the potential for great power. As the game progresses the characters will learn that every action they take in this world can have unexpected consequences, and they will soon find that the fate of the world rests in their decisions.

The game experience I’m currently imagining is a traditional RPG that focuses on exploration of a crazy dreamworld, development of the characters’ ability to Shape, and the position of open-ended moral questions for the players to wrestle with.

With only two weeks to put this together, I may have to trim down my ideas a bit, or possibly throw the whole thing out and try something else. I’m open to suggestions on either count.

Best of luck to all the other entrants!

Published in: on February 12, 2007 at 10:06 pm  Comments (1)  

Mike Addison’s 10 Images

10 Images

Image 1:

The Spider and the Fly

(Some of the effect is lost at this size…check out the bigger version.)

Image 2:

Slug Cart


Image 3:



Image 4:

Jean Coulon Tuba


Image 5:



Image 6:



Image 7:

Discovery of Bees


Image 8:

Dueling Beetles


Image 9:



Image 10:



Wow, that was fun. I would willingly do that again!

Published in: on February 9, 2007 at 2:23 am  Comments (2)