Dialect with The Gauntlet: The Heart of the River
My friend Gerrit posted to run Dialect for The Gauntlet online gaming community, probably back in January or February (they normally schedule 1-2 months out), and I jumped on that. Fortunately I was still able to play by the time the game rolled around in mid March.
Dialect is a game about an isolated community, their language, and what it means for that language to be lost. In this game, you’ll tell the story of the Isolation by building their language. New words will come from the fundamental aspects of the community: who they are, what they believe in, and how they respond to a changing world.
I had backed the Kickstarter based on the premise, but also having heard some great stories about the two authors' (Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalıoğlu) prior game, Sign. Otherwise, I hadn't looked into it at all, and went into the game knowing little about the rules. Fortunately The Gauntlet uses a very "open table" style of play, which allows anyone into a table, and has no expectations on you knowing the rules ahead of time (and plays games that lean into those needs).
I already expected a great caliber of players (thank you Gauntlet), but I was impressed with the game itself. The setup is simple, but meaty and fostered some good collaboration. You start by choosing a Backdrop, one of four settings that the game comes with: A mars colony cut off from communication with Earth. Or a bunch of scoundrels hiding in plain sight.
We chose The Compound: We’re 200 strong, not interested in where the world is going, and have built a compound, and are now completely independent from the world. 20 years have gone by. We started back in the '80s. The US started to wage its drug war. We are in Columbia, locals, mostly indigenous, but disconnected from the land (possibly for generations), we now live in the city, and are fed up with those in power that deal in drugs and violence. We've fled to the jungle, and colonized a small island floating in the middle of a large, flowing river.
The game play revolves around Aspects, of which you will have three. A set of two leading questions provides us with the means to define two of the Aspects, but one Aspect is completely free choice. All of these are answered collaboratively by the group. We ended with these three Aspects:
- What about who we are made the Compound a necessity? We freed ourselves from the terror of the drug war.
- What special property about the Compound keeps us secure? The river runs around us.
- Free aspect? The return to our ancestral homelands.
Character generation is a choice from archetype character cards. What's fascinating is that your character card also is tied to the Aspects in some manner, for example I chose the Artist:
I shunned #1 (the past), and identified with the river, but especially with my "muse", returning to our homelands. I was Jaji, a singer, and somewhat charismatic, providing home when needed, and giving us a narrative as a people. But I also was a bit of a layabout, not really helping when it comes to the real day-to-day needs, and had gained a strong reputation for this over the years.
We had Aziza (she/her, Gerrit) our gardener and spice and color maker, Primitivo (he/him, Paul) our scrounger of resources, with an antagonistic relationship with the river that takes away much of what we need, and Ani'bal (he/him, Brian) our healer of bodies and minds, with occasionally outbursts and a tendency to drink, and who occasionally misses the world.
The game then goes into Age 1. In our game, we just had a huge pile of cards, and chose what we wanted out of it. I'd learn later that if you play rules as written (RAW), then in fact you should draw a hand of three cards each, and select one from your hand. But our method worked perfectly fine here.
The cards are words to be created. For example, creating an expletive, or a word that means "worry". Although we take turns choosing the word to create, the creation is a collaborative process as well, which was excellent. Sometimes you have a good thought on the sound, or a concept, but your teammates are there to help flesh out the other details, or help guide the process. In the end, if it's your turn, you have final authority, but collaboration is the name of the game.
After talking about and formalizing the word (which takes about 5 minutes or more), then you create a scene, where the characters get to use that word. A little scene prompt at the bottom of the card helps if you need an idea of where to start. My favorite part of this process is seeing the evolution over a number of scenes, as there is a cascade effect, where you start to use earlier words more and more in later scenes, just as a side effect of the building of this language.
If this sounds a little intimidating, I'd say building language sounds bigger than you are responsible for here. You are building words, but most of your language is entirely the same as normal, so there is no need to feel pressure, but with all the advantages of getting to see the wonder and creativity.
We got to play far enough so as to finish the first Age, so that everyone created a word. However we had to tie up the session there. My compatriots continued a later session, but I had to miss that, unfortunately.
(I'm going to start stealing from my friend Sid and occasionally using "Stars and Wishes"; things that were highlights, and things I would like to change.)
- Gerrit's setup using Google documents with image of the cards was really well done and made the game run with ease online.
- The chemistry between our characters was really fun to see unfold.
- We took some care to make a real-life situation not feel silly or trope-filled.
- Paul's word choice was for Death, and it was my favorite segment of the game, as we worked together to create Tzon, and the scene was magical and intense. I sometimes still get teary eyed thinking about it.
- I wish I could've play the second session.
- I would want the game to run as a one-shot. (As I found out later, it can fit in a 4-hour slot, but that's in person. I wouldn't try to speed it up for online play, as the slow intentionality is important. My recommendation: If you run online, break it up into two sessions, but try to do so with as short a break as possible in between).
The game was recorded, so here's a recording of the first session:
Before moving on to another session of Dialect, in which I ran the thing, first, a little of Sacramento. Visiting the family, taking the daughter to an afternoon of retro video game action (two arcade cabinets in one restaurant that each had about 60+ retro games on them!!), and finding an old puzzle for $2 at a thrift store.
Dialect in person: The Iron Reign's Lastride
So then, I'm up in Sacramento visiting the family (who'll play board games, but RPGs not so much). That means I also gotta get out and gaming, and so got in touch with a few of my Sacramento peeps. Matthew and I met when I tried running a "story games" type meetup up there the prior year, and was down to play. We ended up meeting at his place, and he invited his friend Yuri (who'd played some RPGs, but story games not much).
Now, normally I lean more towards fantasy and sci-fi, even when playing serious games, because I feel like there's less restriction on being able to create or play in the setting. However, in talking with Matthew and Yuri, we went more historical fiction. In the past I was a bit averse to this (and still have an internal reaction as such!) but I've had so many good RPG experiences that are set as historical fiction recently, that I didn't say anything to the contrary. And I'm glad we played in the setting we did.
We chose the Thieves' Cant Background: The most important tools for the dozen members of our crew are not our weapons but our language. We speak in code, disguised as pleasantries and idle chatter as we move among our targets.
In creating our setting, we settled on Germany, early 1800's, the early budding of the industrial era. Germany is still a bunch of kingdoms, with some consolidation going on. We decided on the made-up city of Salzberg, on the Baltic sea, north Germany. It has a strong ship-building industry.
We are The Iron Reign, a few places away from a royal seat in a kingdom which has been engulfed by another kingdom. We are horse "thieves", trading in only the purest of German pure-bred horse breeds, whereas our rivals, the "Open Hand", believe a horse is a horse. Heathens.
- Our job: Procure horses, by any means
- Eyes on us (what provides us cover): The fairgrounds, a mix of cultures and trade, dominated at times by the Roma.
- Free aspect: Preserve the line; we are from a noble line, and need to regain our seat of power.
We had "Lady Iron Reign" (a royal title, or a stage name?) Isolda, the closest in line to a royal seat that is no more, an adrenaline junkie. Richard von Eisenhuf "Ritterhard", a true knight, and protector of the line and honor. And Adolar, known as "Books", who is a bastard of the royal line, a mix of the royal house and Roma blood, who is self-educated and smart, and also swims in the sea of knowledge that is the fairgrounds.
I played this game closer to RAW (rules as written), and we drew a hand of cards for character choices, and then later each a hand of cards for words (3 from the first age). After you play a first age card, you draw a new card from the second age. This means in the next round of play, you'll have 2 first age cards, and 1 second age card to chose from and play. It was very interesting to see how second and third age cards differ. In the first age it's mostly about making words. In the later ages it's also about more complex word concepts, or situations around words, such as the government mandating their use, or deprecation.
One example word we defined was Prox, which we decided originally came from a longer chemical word, which was part of our mix that subdues horses. Now it's comes to mean "an important resource" or an "important part of the plan"; and eventually we found ourselves using it as "cool" or "good".
Another great one was Lastride. Our knight had gotten old, and was on his death bed, and decided to bring back an older tradition that was no longer being kept. He was held up on his horse (he couldn't ride on his own anymore), and placed in a fake field of battle with friends. And they stabbed him, so that he could die honorably in battle, in his "lastride".
We played almost a 4 hour session. I'm finding that it seems to fall into 3 equal sized chunks: game setup, the first age, and the rest of the game. The second and third age sort of snowball a little bit, and that may be due to getting familiar with the game by that point, or maybe we just rushed some of those scenes more than expected.
- Although it's important to stand up for what you want to see in a game as a GM, just as a player, I'm very happy I let Matthew and Yuri guide the basic premise for the setting, because I again enjoyed a historical fiction game!
- The scene after Ritterhard was killed in his Lastride, had the Lady Iron Reign lead a charge in a war that was brewing, and all the soldiers stood up and chanted "to the lastride!" despite the fact that they had no horses and were just foot soldiers. I loved how the word really felt like it came to it's own, and no longer needed to be true to its original meaning. It felt like what the game is meant to do!
- About 2/3 through the game, and I did some checkins to make sure everyone was still in for the long haul (~ 4 hours), and I was feeling a little worn down, but thanks to Matthew and Yuri for carrying it to the end! I felt really satisfied with the game when it ended.
- I was really happy to get the game to conclusion, both because it felt complete, but also because I now know that it belongs in a 4 hour con slot (don't try a 3 hour slot unless you set expectations that it's only to show how it works, or rush some aspects, which I wouldn't recommend).
- I don't think I've read all the rules, but I definitely recommend being a little lose with some of the scene framing (such as not necessarily having only our characters be a main protagonist in the scene, if it feels forces). We had one scene were it made more sense to see children on the street say the word as our older main character watched. We had scenes after one of the characters, Ritterhard, had already died.
- Although games are probably quite variable in timeframe, it'd be interesting to know what the expected times for the different phases of the game are (and it'd be cool if the rules mention this).