Narrativist Round-Up: Community Radio and Peter Pan

A while ago I sat down with a few friends to play a round of “Community Radio,” an improv game by Quinn Murphy heavily inspired by the “Welcome to Nightvale” podcast. It was originally brought to my attention by bankuei, and in the interest of full disclosure, my friends and I are pretty big fans of all-things Nightvale related.

When people talk about roleplaying games, they’re talking about a pretty wide swathe of playstyles and genres that are pretty fundamentally different. I’m not going to re-tread all of it, but suffice to say that I’m pretty sure “Community Radio” is a narrativist game.

Full disclosure, I think “Community Radio” was probably the first truly modern Narrativist game I’ve ever played. I’ve played some FATE, but that has enough gamist window-dressing to not make the shift too abrupt. I’m pretty sure we ended up playing FATE ‘wrong’, anyway. IE more gamist than narritivist. For example, in FATE, you get a certain amount of points you can burn to turn your rolls into successes. The trick is, once you use them, they’re gone forever. Since it was a one-shot game, I burned those suckers like there was no tomorrow. Because I’m a terrible person.

But in “Community Radio,” as in many truly narrativist games, there’s no gamist cruft to exploit. Just pure role-playing. When I first read the rules, I thought to myself, “Wow. This is pretty much just an improv game.” A very weird, valued evaluation to make, as if there was some inherent valuation difference or some core aspect that distinguished role-playing from improvisation.

Anyway, here’s how it worked:

The GM plays the role of the Radio Host in a small, creepy town. Through his broadcasts, he sets up scenes for the other players to play characters in. At the end of each scene, the GM wraps up with a broadcast describing the action of the previous scene.

After going over the rules with my group, the game told us to pick some topic or incident to kick things off. The game rules offered several scenarios, and we picked one about police officers investigating some crime in Nightvale.

My players were all big fans of Nightvale, so they took to the game pretty quickly. It was a little awkward, as they had to pretty much improvise characters, motivations, and action on the spot. There was a lot of dialogue and not a lot of action. As the GM, I quickly learned to spend the scenes taking notes and putting together my next broadcast based on how events were unfolding.

After I gave my broadcast, the players got to write down and hand me “Council Decrees”. Fun little bits of information or action that I was supposed to incorporate into the broadcast. This was one of the best parts of the game in my opinion, as it allowed the players a chance to directly influence the game’s direction, and provided some hilariously in-character weirdness for the “Nightvale” theme.

A couple of scenes in, I realized that my role as the GM was to try and drive the story forward a bit. As my players weren’t really comfortable advancing the plot very much in the scenes, I took to making my broadcasts more dramatic after-action reports. My players took well to this, and used my broadcasts to build off new scenes in new and exciting directions.

Overall, it was a fun time had by all. Solid design made for a good evening’s worth of play that didn’t over-stay its welcome. I definitely recommend checking it out, especially if your a fan of Nightvale or just dark humor in general.

Speaking of which, I also got the chance to play a game of Fiasco using a Peter-Pan style module by  Matt Schillinger and Scorcha, as GM’s by the always-awesome Scorcha. It was my first time ever playing Fiasco, and we had a pretty good time with it. Funnily enough, Scorcha told us that it had been designed as a Fiasco module that the creator could potentially play with his daughters. However, we brought all kinds of kid-unfriendly stuff into it. Because Peter Pan is f’ed up, man. My character ended up marrying a mermaid and turning into a Chthulu-esque monstrosity. Because reasons.

The thing that struck me about playing Fiasco, which I think can be more broadly applied to GM-less games in general, is that you still need someone steering the ship. Scorcha did a great job of this, suggesting scenes and plot hooks that the rest of us could latch onto and use. A private vindication, as I’ve always been of the opinion that a good GM is more of an asset than a bad GM is a liability.

As to whether or not you should play it… well, let’s just say that it prompted me to compose the following rhyming couplet:

LET ME TELL YE THE TALE OF LONG JOHNS SILVERS, THE TRUSTWORTHY PIRATE, WHO WASN’T SO TRUSTWORTHY.

HE LIVED AS A BUTLER, IN OLD LONDON TOWN, NOW HE LIVES WITH A MERMAID, WHERE EVEN FISHES DO DROWN.

SWIM NOT IN DARK, TROUBLED WATERS, YE BOYS AND YE MEN, LEST YOU WIND UP LIKE OL’ TRUSTY JOHN, AND HIS MALEVOLENT KEN.

In other words, yes. Yes you should. When it’s out, it’ll probably show up here.

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