I setup an Art of Story Through Gaming (ASTG) meetup this week for my Indie RPG Night series. Issues #2.
Lots of folks couldn't make it, so it was just Harry and I. And I've been trying to get a few 2-player RPGs in the back pocket for just such an encounter.
This weeks adventure: The Skeletons, by Jason Morningstar (and Bully Pulpit Games). Described as such:
The Skeletons flips the script on the classic dungeon crawl— here you play not the intruders, but the guardians, cursed to spend all of eternity defending a tomb. As time passes, both the tomb and its guardians will change. Ferocious battles are fought and won, and the skeletons slowly remember who and what they once were.
I read through the rules a few weeks back, and one thing that impressed me was the concept of time passing. During many points of the game, time will pass, and that informs how long the players then sit, in the dark, in silence (or with appropriate ambient music playing).
I also liked the way the play seemed smooth and simple, with questions and cues. It has a feeling similar to The Quiet Year in how the way the game directs you towards a narrative, but with a scenario randomizer (in The Quiet Year it's a shuffled deck, The Skeletons it's more like multiple choice choose-your-own-adventure). After that, it's answering questions and creating scenarios in a narrative-driven fashion.
The Crypt of the Six Guardians
You start play by collaboratively drawing your crypt. We never had a name for our crypt, but I'll call it the Crypt of the Six Guardians because there were 6 alcoves total in this rectangular chamber. The "sarcophagus" wasn't a normal shape, but instead had the look of a large, circular, hinged, stone vault door on the floor of this chamber. There was one large archway which had been mostly blocked by a large boulder; this was the main passage in. And there was a set of stairs that went under the "sarcophagus"... to who knows where.
There are 7 skeletons (i.e. characters) you can choose from. Harry chose the skeleton Headless ("Your skull is long gone but it doesn’t matter. You carry an iron mace and a holy symbol."). I chose Outsider ("Your bones are unlike the others. You carry a weapon that suits your frame, and fearsome armor."). The skeleton sheets have a lightly drawn skeleton, which you then overlay details upon. That was a fun element that combines art skills (or lack thereof) with thought processes that start giving the skeleton the beginning of some personality.
Unlike many games, you don't create a backstory for your character, because your character has no memory of their past. Instead, this is something you fill in as you play the game, and begin to answer some of the questions on the sheet.
We went through all three phases of the game, from The Unsealed Tomb, to The Time of Dust, and through The Desecration. Those phases really lend an interesting mood, starting with strength and power, and time passing somewhat quickly... and then leading to long periods of darkness in between events, and the degradation of the crypt and the skeletons.
The only hiccup was some confusion on the Skeleton sheets, where it says "Answer these as time passes:" for the list of questions. Because the game has a specific mechanical construct called "TIME PASSES", I though that was when the questions should be answered. However during a separate game construct known as "INTRUDERS", it says "Everyone answer one question if they wish", and I believe it's referring to these Skeleton sheet questions. I think the phrase "time passes" on the Skeleton sheets here is confusing. We settled on answering those questions during the INTRUDERS phase, which looks to be the intention.
If that's the case, a different phrase should be used on the sheets. (Although I haven't thought of a good suggestion!)
I like that this game is played with only a sheet. The instructions say a d6 is needed, but we never saw its use. Maybe we didn't encounter a specific question that used it?
We decided to use skeleton minis to represent our characters, as Harry had a bunch lying around. I think it added some fun flavor to the experience, and would recommend it if you have them about.
We both though that the music enhanced the game. The key is obviously choosing the right set of tracks that support the experience. In this game I curated songs off the cuff from a large playlist of "RPG tracks" that I've created on my phone).
I ended up using the following:
- My loop of tracks from the official Full Metal Jacket soundtrack (tracks 9+11+12+13+15). In retrospect, Leonard (track 12) would be an excellent time passes track all on its own, which includes a subtle water dripping type sound that pervades the track for a good underground cave / crypt feel; it plays about 6 minutes long. Ruins and Attack (tracks 11 and 13) would loop well together for an encounter.
- Various tracks from Mark Morgan's Fallout 2 soundtrack (such as Underground Troubles, City of the Dead, Vats of Goo). These worked very well for time passing, and just in general. You could just use tracks like this for the entire game without issue.
- Hologrammic Dub by DJ Spooky, for one encounter
- Analog Wormz Seguel by Mr. Oizo, for one encounter (this one with tomb spiders)
- Sahra Saidi by Gamal Goma, for the final encounter (this was the one that led to our demise; a seasoned group of adventurers... or is just that we've weakened in our old age?)
I think the track Beyond the Last Parsec from Harry Mack's The Last Parsec soundtrack, would be a good one with a little more life (maybe an earlier time passes scene, or an encounter that's a little more "spiritual"). I was looking for it during game, but couldn't remember the name.
One: We took a quick look at the Echoes of War Variant by Sara Williamson, which is included in the game PDF, and it looks like a cool variant. You could just as easily play this instead, as it's simply different flavoring for the same basic game.
Two: I wanted to use this session to help with the world building we started in the prior ASTG meetup with Microscope. And this session with The Skeletons works perfectly. We just created the crypt and backstory for a main part of the Dungeon World session I plan to run for these players in a few weeks.
Running future sessions
I would definitely love playing this game more. Running it a con or game shop could be problematic, as I really think the darkness and a lack of distracting background noise would provide the best experience. However if you are going to someplace like Big Bad Con, with private rooms unlocked due to a successful Kickstarter, that could be a great place to run such a game.