My storytelling game, Weird Stories, was released earlier this month at PAX Unplugged. It’s been a 2.5 year process getting this game out, and it was often a strange process, because I never believed I would or could make a game like this.
First, about the game: it’s a storytelling game in which weird things happen, but players will never be obligated to explain why they’re happening. Instead, everyone focuses on the impact of the weird things on the characters.
These are stories that I personally love. There’s something about them that’s deeply resonant with me. In fact, I get annoyed by stories where mysterious things happen at first, but halfway or two-thirds through, the author “switches on the lights” and tells us exactly who or what is behind everything, and why they’re doing it. This makes the last part of the story more of a straight action thriller. I’m sure other folks enjoy that, but I wish that the mystery remained throughout.
About the game
Weird Stories is a one-shot zero-prep story game in which players tell stories about weird things happening, without explaining why. There are three Settings Packs that come with the game: Creaking Branches (an homage to Twin Peaks), Dark Ramble Manor (a creepy Victorian ghost story), and Happyland (a modern-day big-budget theme park where absolutely nothing ever goes wrong). If the game is successful, more Settings Packs will come out; I have at least 11 in various states of completion.
Players start the game by choosing a Settings Pack. Each Pack contains several pregenerated Characters and several Weirds (The Weird is the thing through which the weird stuff will come through each game). Players draw 3 random Weirds to the middle of the table and vote on which one they want to play with. They then draft a character from a pool of random Character Cards, and use Connection Cards that come with the game to work out how the Characters know each other as the game starts.
The game starts with an establishing scene. This scene is played straight; there is no Weird. One player is the Framing Player; it’s their job to frame the scene and suggest where the other players enter. The Framing Player also chooses when the scene ends.
They suggest, because in the game, each player has full responsibility over their character. If someone tries to punch their character, that player controlling that character decides if it lands and how much it hurts. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule; we’ll get to them in a moment.
Each player has an identical four-card hand that they can flash to the other players to communicate nonverbally. One card, Go, tells the other players that what’s happening is great, and should keep happening. Another card, Stop, tells the other players that the current scene is making them uncomfortable and they should find another way (in other words, it’s an X-Card). The third card, Suggest, indicates that the player would like to suggest something happen to another player’s character; however, these are only suggestions, as the player playing the Suggest Card doesn’t have agency over the other characters. And the fourth card, Close, suggests to the Framing Player that it’s time to bring the current scene to a close.
The establishing scene is there to show how the Characters interact when things are “normal.” But after that, the players reveal 4 random Question Cards from the Act I Question Deck. The Framing Player rotates to the left; that player chooses a Question that the players will try to answer during the scene. Each Question grounds the action, forcing the players to tie the strange things happening back to the story.
But of course, this is Weird Stories, and weird things have to happen. That’s where The Weird, chosen by the players at the start of the game, comes in. The Framing Player is in charge of the Weird each scene. If they invoke the Weird, they have full agency over all characters in the game, superseding the players’ agency over their characters (although, of course, the Stop Card is there if things get uncomfortable, overriding everything else).
If the Framing Player has a hard time coming up with weird things, there is a prompt deck, split by Act, that they can draw from to inspire them.
One other important restriction on play is the No-Removal Rule: a player cannot remove a Character’s agency over the story. In other words, you can’t kill a Character off mid-story. You also can’t move them to a different location, or incapacitate them for a long time. (Of course, you can kill a Character mid-game; you just can’t kill them off. They will return next scene, at latest! The nature of that return is up to the players.)
The Framing Player can close the scene when it feels right, although the other players can suggest this by showing their Close cards. If the players have answered the scene’s Question, they flip over that Question Card.
If 3 Question Cards have not been flipped, players continue with the current Act. The role of Framing Player (and control of The Weird) passes clockwise. The new Framing Player chooses an available Question, and play continues.
If 3 Question Cards have been flipped, that’s the end of the Act! There’s a short intermission where the players get to check in and see if the story is proceeding satisfactorily.
The game ends at the end of the third Act. There’s a short Denouement scene to close things off, and then the players have told their Weird Story!
Designing the game
I’d always wanted to make a game in which players told these kinds of stories. But I’d never designed any kind of RPG before, story or otherwise. I’d played plenty of them – Fiasco, Microscope, InSpectres, Lady Blackbird, Apocalypse World, Spirit of the Century, The Quiet Year, and Hearts Blazing, to name a few. But I never thought I’d design one.
Also, to be honest, I always leaned towards story games. I can understand why folks like more tactical, map-and-dice RPGs, but I always started zoning out after the third or fourth round of combat. I’ve always been more interested in creating a story with my friends than embellishing a tactical wargame with narrative flair (nothing wrong with it, just not my jam).
So one evening, as I drove up to Granite Game Summit (a fantastic convention in New Hampshire), an idea about how to implement this game mechanically just popped into my head. And with that, I had the sinking feeling that all game designers know; it was now mine. I had to make this game.
I playtest the game for the first time in April 2019, with a small group of industry friends. The test was a bit rough, as these tests always are, but there was a lot of promise. The game worked very differently, though.
First off, each player had their own “Subject” that they controlled. Of course, the Singularities are what eventually became The Weird, and the first playtest showed that each player controlling their own Weird was too much.
Multiple Subjects/Weirds was an adjustment I made immediately after the first playtest. But I also had players create characters at the start of the game, with an interesting twist; character creation was shared. Players would write in a bit of the character’s information, and then pass the character sheet clockwise. They’d then put in a new bit on the character sheet they just received. That meant that players had a hand in creating most, if not all, of the Characters in the game.
Related to that change was that after each scene, the Characters themselves rotated between players! Each player would get to play each Character multiple times.
I was really attached to these mechanisms of rotating Character creation and play, and they hung around for over a year. I enjoyed the dynamics that came out of them; they let the players share in the character creation, and they provided enough distance between Character and player that players didn’t feel bad doing horrible things to the Characters. Weird Stories is, in the words of designer Raph D’Amico, a “play-to-lose” game, so doing horrible things to the Characters is vital to the game working!
But eventually, I got too many complaints from players that the mechanism was distracting from play. In theory, I didn’t mind players feeling a bit disoriented and ungrounded; but in practice, it wasn’t serving the game. So I sadly removed it from the game, and things got much better from there.
The Prompt Cards were originally Effect Cards that players had in hand, and played on other people. But I found that having these cards in hand meant that players would play them on each other constantly, which pushed the story into nonsense-ville very quickly.
In fact, this was something I would struggle with for much of the game’s design process: how to encourage players to make weird things happen in the story, while still keeping the story grounded and interesting? For a long time, the story that came out of the game was almost cartoonish, if players weren’t consciously working past the game’s incentives to heighten things, and deliberately attempting to ground the story instead.
This is, of course, where the Questions came in. At first, these were 10 questions, revealed one-at-a time. But players wanted a bit more control over the narrative, so I split the action into 3 acts, and came up with a bunch of Questions that they could choose from at the start of a scene.
The last change that really made an impact were the Settings Packs. Originally, players always created everything at the start of the game: they came up with the setting, the Weird, and the Characters. Like character generation in most games, this took a large amount of time and energy.
I wondered what the game would be like with pregens. Excellent, it turned out! Players got to the gameplay more quickly, did not need as much guidance during setup, and felt like they were focusing their attention on the more exciting things, like making weird things happen.
It was a good RPG design lesson; there’s a limit to the amount of cognitive load players can handle. It’s not a hard limit, where players will pack up the game once you exceed a precisely-defined value; it’s squishier than that. At a certain point, players will find the process more laborious than interesting, and as a game designer, we have to find exactly when we want players to do the work and when we can abstract things away for them.
Overall, making this game was a wonderful change after making crunchier games like High Rise. Making a board game is so didactic; it’s me telling players that they must do these things to have a good time. But RPG rules feel far more lax; I feel like I’m whispering softly in a player’s ear that if they do this thing, they’ll probably enjoy it.
I’m also indebted to the folks who helped with the game visuals. The striking front cover is courtesy of artist Ibon Adarne, the back cover is from painter Aron Wiesenfeld. Travis Kinchy, who did all the illustrations for The Networks series of games, handled all the other drawings. And Amber Seger is responsible for graphic design of the front and back cover and the cards.
Will I ever design another RPG? Who knows? But Weird Stories was a blast, and I hope you get to try it soon!