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Dispatching the Dungeon Master » Blog Archive » Quick Follow-Up to A Small Town Anywhere
Quick Follow-Up to A Small Town Anywhere

Kevan, Holly and I actually had the chance to try out the game–or a version of the game-in-progress, anyway. I did a very long writeup.

That… that looks awesome.

I’m so annoyed that I missed it.

It was awesome, but annoying in that it was clearly unfinished, and that it had so much potential. Kevan suggested that a Nomic-like structure allowing the townspeople to suggest rules (eg a justice system) would have allowed the game to shape itself without requiring a rigid set of rules from the organizers. As it was, there pretty much weren’t any rules, beyond common courtesy and obeying the Town Crier.

Actually, I imagine a bold enough Mayor could have introduced a Nomic system simply by declaring it - starting off with something small like “some people have suggested to me that the teenager shouldn’t be trusted to distribute the post - let’s take a vote on this”, and building up to actually being able to evict people from the town.

They seem to be very good at immersiveness, though - it seems to me that everyone playing got very involved in the experience, and if they’ve got that in place then the issue of whether or not the game mechanics are entirely there is somewhat diminished. I do like the Nomic addition, but I prefer even more the concept that it could develop organically - especially the idea that the game can be figuratively open-ended, only ending when the players feel that it has reached its own, natural conclusion.

Mm, I’m not sure how much it was entirely “good at immersiveness” and how much was a result of the people who went - that the sort of people who’ll go, on a weekday afternoon, to a vague “some sort of game/play thing, with letters” are probably the sort who are particularly prone to being immersed. But things like the eyecovers for night — which as Brendan mentions didn’t really seem to serve any game purpose — were very effective at adding to the feeling of being in a different world (also: rain sound-effects).

I think towards the end some people weren’t putting their masks on at night, which is interesting for suggesting that even the “obey the town crier” was breaking down into “don’t be spotted disobeying the town crier”. I suppose if the crier had actually needed to be obeyed she could have repeated the demand until everyone had complied.

One of the organisers did say something about how some people will sit there saying “I don’t get this, I don’t get this”, and that it’s the player’s responsibility to make what they can out of it; but at the same time they were obviously trying very hard to encourage people to make something good out of it, and to minimise the chance of people sitting around being grumpily confused or bored. I think having a win-condition or at least an aim made clear pretty early on (if not at the start) would definitely help with this, if they do go for the gamier side of what the Small Town could be (which is obvoiusly the one that interests me more). There’d still be plenty of space for rules and systems to emerge within it, there’d just be something to help give it structure.

Another game-versus-theatre thing that emerged afterwards, when I was talking to the organisery woman, was that she had taken it completely as read that nobody could be eliminated; that if you went to “see a show” you couldn’t be kicked out halfway through. Which I found a bit startling at the time, but also sensible; I suppose you could take people around the back to watch through cracks in the walls, or something, but even then I think I’d feel a bit short-changed. Kevan’s suggested that maybe you could maintain some sort of elimination by having a “prison” to send people to, or having them die and turn into ghosts; if you died you’d put on a masks, like in Faust, and you’d be unable to talk to the living or make gestures to them, but you could walk around and listen and stare at things creepily, ignored by the living players. Perhaps also being able to move objects and whisper a bit at night-time, while everyone else is masked, which would bring a purpose back to the masks and seems like it would be a lot of fun.

Still looks like the kind of game that’d benefit from werewolf antics.

Yeah, I suggested in an email to them that they allow the Raven player to remove their blindfold and silently nominate a single death, each night.

One thing Brendan didn’t mention was that the butcher character “disappeared” the morning before the suicide - this was a bit hard to interpret because they were one player short and the butcher was just an empty chair, but I paranoiacally interpreted it as “there is one nominated death per night”, after the suicide happened. It was a bit disappointing to find out that they were just scripted events, afterwards.

The best thing I got from this game was the fact that if you think you’re in danger of being killed, you should confide all your secrets in somebody so that they can carry on your work, or even avenge your death.

Hi there

I was one of the designers/organisers of Small Town and have been reading your feedback and thoughts with great interest - thanks.

One thing I wanted to clarify was where we were at with it and where we’d come from. It is eventually intended to be an immersive theatre piece with a submerged game mechanic that enables and encourages people to play. The starting-point was a brief from the NT Studio to make a piece with no performers that told an existing story. We came at it from game design to build two components. First, adapting Mafia by adding a postal service, basic characters and accidentally turning the referee into a town crier. Second, because the story is about gossip rather than murder (there’s one suicide, one eviction, and the person ultimately revealed as the Raven is murdered to avenge the suicide) we built a game called The Gossip Game, a version of which was actually what was played at hide + seek. In that game, you have secrets on your self, gossip on others, you swap gossip and secrets and lies to gather enough info to denounce the person who is secretly your target and if you get it right, they’re shamed and evicted (and you play on now free to denounce anyone but with the knowledge they may well gang up on you), if you get it wrong then they stay in the town and now know you’re after them.

Having made that, we then wanted to remove any explicit rule set, any explicit victory condition, and rather see if we created the conditions in which the game is played whether people start playing it naturally and then what would happen if we introduced elements of the narrative, not least the ‘enemy within’ of the Raven. I was against explicit rule sets for this partly because I felt it might judder the immersiveness of the experience but mostly because it would make it a lot more challenging for us.

The week we spent at the Studio, we changed elements a lot from playing to playing - iterative playtesting or ’scratching’ (as it’s commonly known in this neck of the theatre woods). We used a lot more scripted activity than we ultimately plan to because this was the opportunity for us to try that out (not least as we had between 1 and 5 actors hidden within the crowd for this week only) and kinda knew that a lot of that would fail for precisely the reason that it was scripted but wanted to see how it would fail to learn from that.

One simple thing that made a huge difference was just allowing more time. Both Friday playings had an extra ten minutes near the start of the town’s week and it enrichened enormously just giving people space to get on with their own things.

We’d wanted to do more things at night-time (and there was a scripted scene that happened between actors to be eavesdropped near the end of the week) but never had the headspace to think about it properly. Still, we felt it was important to punctuate the play with periods of reflection and also it added to the atmosphere.

I wish we’d had a bit more time at least to have encouraged one or a few evictions from the town (characters would have been either imprisoned or made destitute, either way turned into active observers rather than players) although I would strongly resist turning it into a murder game because it’s not really what it’s about - the suicide will only remain if it does as a device to raise the narrative stakes (and we can turn the dead character into their own vengeful mother, did that happen when you were there?)

The Nomic-like structure is a really interesting idea. I certainly think we’d want to be able to facilitate big town events more easily - I think you weren’t there for the handwriting analysis class which was added later in the week, as was a more formal town meeting - and in response to what players choose rather than imposing a choice. The two big things I want to get right next time is how we can add narrative framework to the game that players’ material can grow around and how players can win or lose their own ‘mini-games’ (can you get the person you hate evicted from the town and protect your loved one) but still be left with an interesting place and objectives in the town, without ever explicitly giving the rules of those mini-games.

That’s all I can think to say at the moment in response. This dialogue is really useful for us in developing it further. Please keep talking here or via email if it still interests you. Thanks very much anyway both for playing and for talking about it.

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