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It started as a simple fantasy-RPG play experiment: Could I mash-up a bunch of genre references, a handful of game accessories, an undercooked experimental game mechanic, and a few weekday hours into some kind of crazy, bawdy crime story?

It turned into a collaborative storytelling farce, well balanced (quite by chance) as a device for facilitating unreliable narrators in an otherwise old-school fantasy-RPG adventure romp.

Here’s what we did:

It’s a little like alchemy. Understand that the interaction of the different parts causes something unpredictable to happen. Unpredictability is good. Rather than try to reduce out everything that’s precisely necessary from everything we just happened to have on hand at the game table, I’m going to tell you what we did and let you modify it to suit you taste.

It’s simple, really. Stir a couple of simple ground rules into your typical fantasy adventure RPG session (you know, the Tavern-Dungeon-Monster-Treasure-type of story) and you get a riff on the classic crawl, spiced up with a bit of buffoonery and outright lying — and little way to tell the difference between the two. (Hence, the unreliable narrator.)

Preparation time, not including character creation, was about 10 minutes. Served five players, including GM.


In Play:

1. Let the players in on the kind of session you’re going to be playing. Offer up some kind of dramatic introduction that gets across the idea behind the session as quickly as possible:

“This story begins and ends in a tavern — this tavern. You’ve got explaining to do. You were hired to retrieve an object for a certain patron and deliver it to him here. Tonight.

You’ve attempted the mission. You’ve all survived. You’ve returned to the tavern. The patron is seated at his favorite table, amidst the crowd, ready to receive his item… but you’re not ready to give it to him.

Either you don’t have the item or the mission simply cost you more than you bargained for. (We’ll see.) Whatever happened, it’s time to see if you can get more out of this guy. To do that, you’re going to tell him a tale worthy of his time. When you’re finished, either he’ll pay you or he won’t. It’s all in the telling.”

When I ran this play session, I improvised roughly the above introduction (followed up with a description of the tavern and what the PCs know of the place as regulars there). The gist of it is all there. What matters, though, is that you get across these key details, and don’t be afraid to say them outright once you’ve completed your dramatic introduction (there’s no point in being coy with the talent in the hopes that they’ll read between the lines as the audience):

  • (a) all of the adventurous parts of this story take place in flashback as part of the story the PCs are telling to “the Listener” — the NPC patron who hired them
  • (b) the Listener has some thing/money/artifact/secret/service they need1
  • (c) the rules of play, for this session, are changed to reflect the fact that the story isn’t being experienced by the characters but told by them.

    This is just one bit of inspiration I happened to have with me when we played. You never know how the presence of something like this at the game table can inspire… or distract.2. Where is this story happening? We played this is as a high-energy instant-gratification one-shot play session in an anonymous fantasy world halfway between Warhammer and Nehwon, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use this same trick with established characters in an ongoing campaign. Having that kind of established rapport with characters and the game world could even be an advantage.

    Everyone needs to have a common notion of the kind of game world they’re playing in, right from the start. This is a place where surprising originality is bad. (You’ll add it in during play.) Instead, what you want is a nice off-the-shelf sense of place and a shared notion of what’s absurd for the setting — is it ridiculous to think that a character might have lost the magic sword you lent him because an unscrupulous rat-man took it, or is it merely unlikely? In other words, what sort of bullshit is going to stink and what’s going to get past the Listener’s bullshit detector?

    A stack of these handsome game tiles had been sitting around my office since a previous Gen Con and I was looking for an excuse to use as many of them as I could.3. Add in a few simple game mechanics. When I ran this experiment the first time, I was using the game rules from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay ’cause they play fast and afford plenty of opportunities for peril.

    More important to this particular experiment were the game tiles we had on hand. These are handsome, painted terrain maps with atmospheric light sources and a lot of character. (Highly recommended.) You could also use the maps from a product like Backdrops, but the ability to quickly shift from map to map is going to be important here.

    The mechanic we used in play utilized Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay‘s Fate and Fortune points (liberally), but you could substitute any kind of limited, player-spendable resource (Action Dice, Drama Points, whatever else), even if you introduce them just for this one game session. What’s important is that you have a pool of Major Points (e.g. Fate Points; 3-5, let’s say) for each character, and a pool of Minor Points (e.g. Fortune Points; likewise 3-5) for each character. If these resources are especially rare in your game of choice (e.g. once-per-level effects or something similar), I recommend you either replenish them at the end of this session or dole out special Unrealiable Narrator Points (call them Bullshit Points, if you like) just for this tale.

    Here’s the mechanics as we used them:

    The Narrator: At all times, one player-character (and one only) must be the Narrator of the tale — he is the character currently relating the events that went down to the Listener. This is the only character who can spend Fortune Points to alter the “reality” of the story. If the Narrator is at any time rendered unconscious (or seemingly dead, though we know all characters survive this story), the current scene immediately ends and the GM begins a new scene of his choice that takes place in a setting of his choosing. (Probably whatever dungeon the captured characters are thrown into.) The GM names any other PC as the new Narrator.

    Fate Points: These (the Major Points) can be spent to take control of narration, thereby making your character the new Narrator. This must be accompanied with some bit of roleplaying back in the book-end setting (the tavern) explaining to the Listener why the new Narrator is taking over. E.g.: “Edgar was out for almost an hour. They tossed all of us into the back of their wagon and left us out in the rain until almost midnight.” or “Well, that’s not quite how I remember it, Edgar.”

    Fortune Points: These (the Minor Points) can be spent to do any of the following:

    • • Move any or all characters on the map a distance up to their Movement (“No, no, he was over by the fireplace at that point. I remember ’cause that’s how I knocked him in there.”)
    • • Deal maximum damage or negate the damage from a single attack (“Yeah, but it wasn’t that bad. Just a nick.”)
    • • Heal damage equal to the character’s Toughness Bonus (“That’s when Edgar came out of nowhere, so fast you’d never know he was hurt!”)
    • • Swap out the map tile for another one (“Actually, Edgar, I think we were already outside by the fountain at that point.”)
    • • Swap one monster for another of equal difficulty (“I don’t think it was an ogre. I got a pretty good look at it. It was definitely a troll.”)

    These mechanics obviously require a bit of adjudication on the art of the GM, who may also allow other uses for Fate points. I let a player exchange weapons with his character’s foe at one point, for example. The guiding principle is how well the player can roleplay his character’s telling of the tale to the Listener.

    When in doubt, this creates a great opportunity to use a character’s social abilities when they might otherwise be neglected. Suddenly your smooth-talking scoundrel becomes a more competent warrior, at least in the mind of the Listener, as he bluffs his audience into believing he bested every bandit in the burg. “That guy wasn’t so tough,” he says, “once I had my axe in his face.”

    4. Determine if the Listener is Sufficiently Persuaded: We were using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay which doesn’t quite have a robust extended-action mechanism (I loved extended actions in all RPGs), so I simply said that the characters got to make Fellowship rolls each time they used a Fortune Point, scored (or suffered) a critical hit, or “died” during the story. The idea here is that they’re demonstrating just how hard they tried and how serious they were about completing the Listener’s mission.

    If they can succeed on ten rolls before they fail ten rolls, the Listener buys their story, appreciates their effort, and gives them another chance (or more money, or whatever it is they were after). The next adventure might pit the characters against the Listener’s task again, only this time… for real! [dramatic music]

    If they fail ten rolls before they succeed on ten rolls, the Listener is all, “You expect me to believe this nonsense? That a talking octopus stole my medallion? You’re pathetic. I’m leaving.” The characters, now firmly in the present-tense of the tavern environment, have to find a new way to coerce the Listener, or they must accept defeat.

    In the End

    Will this work for you? How the hell do I know? Give it a shot and let us know. I had a great time playing out this scenario and I am resolved to try it again, but I can’t hardly say that it’ll work with all players or all game systems. I predict, though, that if it is a disaster, it’ll be a spectacular one — and thus an excellent farce.

    1. I yanked the character of Cutty, a fence, whole-cloth from my beloved Thief: The Dark Project. In that game he’s not really a character as much as he’s a MacGuffin, since he only exists to motivate the second and third game levels, and (spoiler!) dies before either is finished. But one thing at a time.