Today Kevan, Holly and I play/acted in what turned out to be a kind of iterative playtest for A Small Town Anywhere, one of the games we missed at Hide and Seek Fest but whose description was really intriguing. We were asked to write up our personal accounts of the game/performance and email them to the organizers, but I figured I could get a blog entry out of it too.

Um, this turned out really long, and is not as exciting as the Hide and Seek post, and so is probably not interesting unless you’re a curious Dispatch contributor.

We showed up and were assigned town roles, pretty much as I would have expected. I got the Postmaster, which was possibly the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me at the beginning of a game, given that I knew the post office would be crucial to the workings of the game. Alas, a pesky sense of responsibility kept me from abusing the opportunities of my rank for fear of ruining the game for everyone else. As we would later learn that there was no explicit win condition, I kind of wish I’d been more ruthless in doing so now.

We filed into a pretty thoroughly set-up room centered around a schoolhouse, with desks for some people, beds for others, and a wheely post-cart thing for me. One quasi-fake wall had the mail slot and the big clock set into it, and the organizers were behind it, telling us about daily events over a PA system. They introduced each of the characters (Holly was the Samaritan, wife of the Psychiatrist, and Kevan was the Prosecutor), and we each had a letter to read. Mine contained essentially the following:

  • Last post of the day was to be accepted at 5:00.
  • I was having an affair with the Inpatient (this caused some confusion, as I wasn’t sure whether it meant Patient 13 at the hospital or the Invalid, but Patient 13 eventually approached me and cleared it up).
  • I hated the Prosecutor for unspecified reasons.
  • Neither of them knew my secret: I was a Communist!
  • A hint: there were always delicious biscuits at the town church. How could this be?

You’ll notice that the letter did not exactly specify my duties, responsibilities or what I could get away with as far as abuse-of-authority–not a big omission if you’re approaching this whole thing from an improv perspective, but a bit shocking to me. (One of the other players would later be excited to learn that we were attending not because of theater connections but just because we were “gamesters,” which made us very excited in turn.)

Next we took a class in letter-writing from the Headmaster: addressee and day of the week at the top, then body, then postscript, followed by signature, fold in half and write addressee again on the outside. Everyone wrote sample letters in which they followed these scrupulously, then immediately started sending anonymous and spoofed-header mail (Holly in particular got three different letters, all purportedly from the Doctor, all with different handwriting). I hadn’t realized at this point that I was supposed to be the only route to the mail slot, so everyone just kind of lined up and stuck theirs in. This was perhaps my worst choice of the game, from a selfish perspective. I really should have set an example by making them hand all the letters over to me first; as it was, they all decided I wasn’t necessary for sending mail for the remainder of the game and denied me a great many opportunities to spy.

Oh, and since I wasn’t sure at this point whether my lover (and potential ally) was the Invalid or Patient 13, I wrote a letter to the Priest asking about the biscuits. I thought this would be wasted, and indeed nothing ever came of the biscuit rumor, but the player of the Priest later said that it made her immediately paranoid and that she started taking my conversations with her more seriously. Point to me!

After the letter-writing, we sat down and put on blindfolds for the first “night,” in a manner clearly inspired by Mafia. Unlike Mafia, there was no accuse-murder-trial cycle after the night, and the organizers didn’t even sneak in and move things around while we were blindfolded, so I’m not sure why they were necessary except to give a more concrete sense of the separation of days. I suspect they were a holdover from a previous version of the game.

Monday morning, I delivered a lot of letters (assisted by the Teenager, as per the Town Crier’s PA announcement) and got a kind note about my nice hat and wheely cart from Kevan. Unfortunately, Kevan was the Prosecutor and I hated him, so I shredded his letter, folded it up in another piece of paper and sent it back. He later mentioned that this made him MUCH more paranoid, since it could have been a threat or indication that his mail had been intercepted and not delivered, so point two to me! Or maybe at this part of the game any action engendered paranoia, I don’t know.

The Headmaster quickly revealed that I was his assigned hatred, basically by chasing me out of his classroom a lot. At one point he threw a crumpled wad of paper in my wheely cart, and Holly glided by and picked it up before I could, which I thought was the coolest thing to happen in the game. The paper was just blank scrap, though.

At this point I began consulting and sharing hints with Patient 13, who turned out to be a pretty good ally, and was already sending spoofed mail (eg, To Doctor, From Nurse, I hate you I hope you leave town) just to stir things up. Last post was already almost upon us, and evening shortly thereafter. Blindfolds, Town Crier dream-monologue, end of Monday. I’m pretty sure Kevan’s shredded-return was the only mail I sent that day (or indeed for the rest of the game).

It must have been on Tuesday that I got the letter from “The Raven,” who was not a known player, hinting that I had a connection to the Headmaster. The Raven also gave some pretty explicit hints that the Doctor was performing abortions, and not very well. Since it wasn’t clear when or where the game took place, I just assumed that abortion would be illegal, or at least frowned upon, by dint of the Raven deeming it scandalous.

At this point we started to get some serious information-sharing done, and I picked up from one conversation that the Doctor was engaged in illicit activity, that there was morphine missing from the hospital and “he could have used it for that,” and that the Psychiatrist was concerned that his wife (Holly, the Samaritan) was over at his place an awful lot. Combined with my Raven letter, this led to some fairly obvious conclusions, especially in light of my metagame assumption that all players would have a more-or-less secret affair like mine.

Oh! There were a few coins in my wheely cart, and had been since the beginning of the game; there was never any instruction on what to do with them, and I think the Mayor was the only other person who started with money, or at least the only other money I saw. I mention this because at this point the Fireman pointed out how paper-filled and flammable the post office looked, and how I could possibly make it easier for him to provide some extra patrols in that area. It was nicely subtle and nasty, and I gave him a coin for it. Then I never did anything with the rest of the money. End of Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Kevan asked me with great concern why his letter to me had been returned in pieces; I wasn’t sure whether my hatred of him was valuable secret information, so I made up excuses about the machinery in the post office and failed completely to ease any of his suspicions of sabotage. There was a lot of huddled gathering and me peeking over people’s shoulders while they wrote letters, but the only thing I gained was somebody else accusing the Mayor of being a fellow communist.

At the end of Wednesday, the Cobbler tried to deliver a letter after last-post-call, and I callously told her she was too late and would have to wait until tomorrow. She glared at me and said she knew things about me, and I informed her that unless she told me exactly what those were, she might never send or receive a letter again. She huffed off. This was the only time I really exploited my position, and it was great!

On Thursday, Patient 13 died! What the hell, man! The player immediately assumed the role of Patient 13’s grieving mother, although I wouldn’t realize this until Friday. The Town Crier said that a razor blade had been found next to the body and that it was apparently suicide, and multiple people got letters from the Raven saying nope, it was clearly murder. I managed to snatch all my dead lover’s mail from her hospital bed and read through it, but gained little by this except that she had been instructed repeatedly to complain to the nurse. Motive? (No.)

At the end of Thursday the Cobbler humbly apologized and said she’d just heard a vague rumor that I was incompetent, so I made peace and delivered her mail. I only found out five minutes ago that she heard that from Kevan to begin with, which makes for a much better story.

Friday was the funeral at the church (throughout which the Teenager and I continued to deliver mail, a bit disrespectfully) and we sang an unscripted hymn and staged an unscripted shouting accusation-match. Given that the only structural prompt we were given to do so was “congregate in the church,” I thought that worked quite nicely. The Doctor admitted to performing abortions and there was some muttering about the Teenager stealing mail, but before we could really get underway, a letter to the entire town from the Raven descended from the ceiling to say that it was NOT a suicide. Then the Mayor got up to say something, but was interrupted by the Town Crier, telling everyone to write a final letter guessing who the Raven secretly was. (We were not asked to guess who the murderer was, which was a bit confusing–who cares about the Raven? Weren’t we more concerned abou the killer in our midst?) I wrote a “confession” from the rotten Headmaster but then screwed up the addressing and decided not to submit it. Everyone else put theirs in, and the game was suddenly done.

We gathered outside the town and the organizers read everyone’s accusations aloud, but didn’t reveal who the Raven actually was–apprently it was one of the characters, but that character’s player didn’t know about it, which makes it kind of impossible to guess. As I mentioned, there was no winner or loser declared, and the murder turned out to be a suicide after all.

The whole affair came off very much as game design by nongamers, which is not a slam–I think there are lots of neat broken assumptions in this kind of thing, and I’m certainly interested in the notion of games without victory conditions (although I don’t think arbitrary time-cutoffs are much of a substitute). There were a lot of things that could have made it a tighter game, and a lot of others that could have made it much more like a long-form improv play; I think the organizers are still not entirely sure whether they want to go either direction with it.

If we had time, I’d definitely go play a later iteration, preferably as a moral-free Postmaster who held the reins of the world in his cackling hands. I doubt they’ll let me once they read this, though.