13 September 2014

The Whispering Road

The Whispering Road, by Brent P. Newhall, is a game of finding your way home.

This cooperative game is inspired by some of the works of famed director Hayao Miyazaki (not including Princess Mononoke) and is explicitly appropriate for all ages. It is stated early that violence is not appropriate for the stories told within. This doesn't mean no action, just violence isn't the answer. The premise is that each character has been separated from their home by some circumstance and is looking for a way home (Spirited Away is an excellent example). Traveling with their friends in this new world, they encounter trouble, allies, and hopefully learn more about who they are during their journey. If they play their cards right, they may just get home. 

The book itself is very slim, coming in at 26 pages, but lavishly illustrated. In all honesty, I will probably spend more time writing this than it will take you to read the game. Part of this is the number of full page illustrations and the repeated information. This can be helpful for younger players since they will not have to refer to earlier sections as the move through their session.

Getting started has each player define some part of the setting (referred to as parameters). These can include facts about the setting, or requests about the story. This is essentially a formalized way of having everyone work to create a shared world and establish the kind of story they want to tell. Particularly the things which they do not want to see in the story (e.g. "adult" content). 

Making a character is very simple: pick an archetype, a need, and some traits.

The archetypes include the ordinary hero, special one, mentor, and rascal. The primary thing they provide is a goal to achieve within each act. For example, the ordinary hero's goal is to protect another.

Each character's need is what drives them forward coupled with something holding them back. Specifically, another player's character holding them back in some way. One of the examples provided is: I need to explore, but my friend is sickly and I need to take care of her. The first part is the most important, while the second provides some roleplaying cues and connections with the rest of the group.

Finally, your five traits. There is a list of traits to choose from, some of them have special tags (intellectual, physical, and relational) which have a function if they are used in a matching conflict. While most are mundane, some are decidedly supernatural, such as shapeshifter. 

Here is where things start to get murky. The special one and rascal both have mechanical effects from their archetype. The special one gets a special power or item, but loses a trait in exchange. While the rascal gets two additional traits. The problem with the special one is there is no indication you cannot be a rascal who has future sense, power of flight, power of illusion, and shapeshifter, with three more traits. Nor is there any indication of what effect the special one's special thing has - it appears to do nothing. While mechanical parity isn't going to be a major concern, traits are the only resource character's have and they are spent by using them, with only a limited number refreshing as the game proceeds. It is almost foolish for everyone to not be a rascal, particularly since they have a remarkably easy goal as well (prove your good soul to the others). Also, the example characters have some errors with regard to their traits.

Gameplay is divided into acts and each act has a particular focus. The prologue introduces each character and what their home is like; it is just a series of expositions. Act One moves the characters to the new world, which may or may not be fantastic (it is probably going to be fantastic). Act Two and Three introduce the antagonists and allies respectively. Act Four sends the heroes through an ordeal. Finally, Act Five resolves the action.

During each act, there will various conflicts which address the characters' needs. Each conflict must address at least one need and may have a type which corresponds to the trait tags. If you use a trait which matches with the conflict type, you get a bonus to your roll. Players work together to determine which needs are involved in the conflict and how things play out.

A significant part of the game is helping others before you help yourself. For this, each character has good and bad karma. If you help others (rolling dice to help with another character's need), you gain good karma, while if you help yourself (rolling dice to help with your need), you gain bad karma. There isn't any clear instruction on what to do if you roll dice in a conflict which helps with another character's need and your need. When all of the needs have been involved, everyone moves to the next act.

The after the final act has been resolved, each character's endgame is resolved. It's a little like Fiasco, only significantly less Fiasco-like. Subtract your bad karma from your good karma and compare the result to a chart which will indicate if you get home or not and some indication of the circumstances. Positive results send you home, while negative results keep you in the new world. 0 and -0 each appear on the table, so maybe it is a choice on where you go? 

While this is a cooperative game, two players take on special roles referred to as the Navigator and the Driver. It is easy to think of them as first among equals and should be the most experienced and invested in the fun of everyone else. This is because they are responsible for ensuring the game stays on track (Navigator) and keeping the action moving forward (Driver). Specifically, the Navigator has questions the conflicts need to answer, while the Driver has conflicts which need to be established.

Each act provides a list of questions for the Navigator and some conflict ideas for the Driver. The questions are broad, but specific enough to be helpful as cues. For example, the questions in Act Two are: How have the antagonists upset this world's balance? What is the antagonists' specific threat to the new world? Do you learn anything new about the new world? Likewise, the example conflicts presented are similar: Encountering the antagonists, encountering the antagonists' past victims, learning from a mentor, thrust further into the new world. This is particularly helpful for younger players who benefit from cues to keep them in the right direction.

How does it all turn out? Well, there are troubles with the mechanics, though nothing which is insurmountable. For example, the traits can easily be resolved by giving each archetype five and calling it a day, reducing them to a goal, or even removing archetypes entirely and letting players choose their own goals. What would help above all else is to have an example of play within the actual book to reference. This is very valuable to help gamers of all ages set a tone and see the intention behind the various pieces. Naturally, it can be particularly important for younger players to get ideas and see expectations.

In the end, this is a cute game which is best suited for younger players, particularly families which want to explore some of their favorite fantasy worlds.

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