The final game I played in my trip to the EGG this month (apart from the catch-planes-on-time game) was A Penny For My Thoughts. This indie games darling of 2009 has received a lot of press since its release date was announced, probably because the Evil Hat crew have honed their skills in marketing over the years, and also because the author, the editor and the layout-er (?) all have podcasts and significant web presence. In other words, if you followed the American indie games scene at all in 2009, you know about A Penny For My Thoughts. You couldn't miss it.
I went into the game with a little trepidation, fearing that it might be over-hyped, and came out the other side with good news. The experience I had playing this game was unforgettable and left me wanting to play again, though not immediately. Read on to understand why.
The game mechanisms are simple, and they effectively allow the players to take key points of the plot and connect them in creative ways. They also drive the game directly to the narrative, rather than being mired in the paraphrenalia of the game itself. Because of this I, as a player, wasn't distracted by the gaming artefacts and could get involved in the story.
The game experience managed to engender a sense of wonder and curiosity, partially because I was interested in understanding this new game, and also because the game immediately places the players into the fiction. As a GM who plays mostly convention style games I've often had to start a session by explaining the rules. Conversely, in Penny, this is written to be part of the game and means that I had the sense of being in the fiction (a patient being treated for memory loss) straight away.
I think that the group I was with didn't quite do justice to the first of the three recollections: Recall a pleasant memory. We followed the rules of the game well, but during the first part of the turn, the leading questions (followed by the "Yes, and...") were almost all dark or sad. I don't think that we, as players, stepped up to the task properly and created a pleasant memory out of those facts. The end result was that all the stories in our group featured empty-souled delusions and depressions, or were more at home on Jerry Springer's "Worst of Springer." Herein lies the challenge of the game for me as a roleplayer (GM and player). Learn to take the ingredients from other players and turn them into something more than the sum of parts, to turn them into a story. This dialectic is the challenge that I experience when I run Don't Rest Your Head, and is the technique I most need to work on. A Penny For My Thoughts is a good workout.
So, where to from here? As a group we discussed it afterwards and concluded that the vanilla Facts and Reassurances document could go in dangerous directions, and that before playing the game some boundaries should be set between players to identify topics which should be excluded. By "dangerous" I mean that the game could stir deep emotional traumas in the players, and that bringing them to the surface in pseudo-therapy could do more harm than good.
I want to play this game again, with different Facts and Reassurances and also with the question that was implied in the recent episode of Narrative Control: "Was I there too?" Or perhaps, pointing to another player, "Was she there too?"
If you like your roleplaying game to spend most of its time in the fiction, and you like the challenge of weaving diverse and disconnected story elements into a single narrative, then you will enjoy A Penny For My Thoughts.