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If I hadn't played Annalise, the other game I got a chance to try would have ranked as my favorite of the DexCon weekend. This one was Shreyas Sampat's Mist-Robed Gate, a game that calls to mind the opulent costume kung fu dramas like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Curse of the Golden Flower. Shreyas described it as a game about emotional violence. I really like this genre of movie, and when we played Mist-Robed Gate, it really delivered.

Set up and play for this game is a breeze, and we all discussed setting and made characters in about half an hour. I was interested in a historical setting, and we ended up agreeing on setting the game during the Boxer Rebellion. We had two missionaries, two Chinese Christians, a Chinese opium lord, and a Buddhist monk. Each of the characters had a cross-purpose, and links to at least one other character. During play, lots of interesting tensions and conflicts arose between the characters.

When you create a character for the game, his attributes include a color, feature, and type of weather that represent him. Each of these indicate to the hypothetical audience that the character is an important one. You also make loyalties for the character. These are three or more things your character would sacrifice himself for. All of these loyalties cannot be served at the same time, they contradict one another and you must choose during play which loyalties the character will serve. Lastly, everyone receives one each of the two in-game resources: sets and props.

The most interesting thing about this game is the knife. When you begin play, a knife is placed on the game table and covered with a cloth. As a scene begins, if tensions rise, the knife is uncovered. Your character will want other characters to do things for him, and the only way to get them to do so is to use this knife. After it is uncovered, the knife is still sheathed. While the knife is sheathed, characters cannot openly ask other characters for what they want. You can only hint at your desires and indicate through metaphor what your intentions are. This creates a great cycle of oblique discussion as you make vague statements and hand another player the sheathed knife. The other player must guess what you want. If their character tries to do what you ask, they describe their actions and hand the knife back to you. If they did not do what you wanted, you make another hint and hand the knife back. This part of the game proved really interesting and fun.

The next phase of the knife is the unsheathed knife. When a player is tired of making roundabout requests, she can unsheath the knife and hand it to another player. The first player is now allowed to make direct, open demands. The unsheathed knife is dangerous, however. If a player now wishes, he can answer a direct demand by taking the knife and stabbing the other player's character sheet. The stabbing action is accompanied by a demand, but that demand must always include the death of the character who's sheet has been stabbed.

How can you avoid these various fates? When another player hands you the knife, you must comply with the character's demands. If you don't want to, however, you can choose to go to wirework. That's right. The way to deny a demand is to get in a kung fu fight with the other character. This led to some awesome confrontations in our game. There were several fights in a remote mountain pass and another in an opium den. The fights are flashy and narrative, and everyone around the table gets to secretly vote on the winner. After you get in a fight, one of the things you can do is soothe the knife, and move it back to the previous state (stabbed to unstabbed, unsheathed to sheathed, uncovered to covered). In our game, no one did this.

I managed to get in a big kung fu fight with a missionary over British military plans, and then I stabbed the sheet of a Christian rebel and made him face the English guns with his men and be cut down. If you accept the stabbing, you can narrate anything to happen so long as another player character doesn't have to do it, so the player whose sheet I stabbed narrated his men winning the day against the British, even though he himself was killed in battle.

I really loved this game. It's melodramatic and epic and delivers the grand stories I expect from the genre. It's also pointed firmly at tragedy, which is another trope of these movies. The knife is one of the coolest game artifacts I've ever experienced. It's so visceral and demands attention, especially once it is unsheathed. This is definitely a game I would play again.

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
macklinr
Jul. 24th, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC)
I'm greatly looking forward to this game, as I'm finding that I want to explore more on emotional violence (and how our ideas behind it compare/contrast).
semioticity
Jul. 24th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC)
*sniff* I'm just not providing you enough emotional violence in IAWA, am I?

This game looks hawt.
bar_sinister
Jul. 24th, 2008 09:56 pm (UTC)
There's never enough emotional violence. :0
semioticity
Jul. 24th, 2008 09:48 pm (UTC)
I don't mean to sound pedantic, but I'm curious about the knife: I hope it wasn't a real knife, at least at a con, but that must make one hell of a game aid for a home game.

I'm a bit unclear on the unsheathed knife. You make veiled hints and hand them the knife. They do something and hand it back. If they did what you wanted, what happens? If they didn't, you hint again and hand it back? How many times?
bar_sinister
Jul. 24th, 2008 09:54 pm (UTC)
It was a real knife, but it was just a penknife.

They basically have three options when you hand them the sheathed knife:
1. Guess what you were asking, try to do it, and hand the knife back.
2. Pass your request (obliquely) off to another character. That character is now responsible for fulfilling the request.
3. Get in a kung fu fight with the requesting character to deny their request.

If they hand the knife back, but the action they took wasn't what you wanted, you do hint again and hand it back. How many times? As many as the players want. The recipient of the knife usually figured it out by the third try, and often on the first.
unrequitedthai
Jul. 26th, 2008 03:35 pm (UTC)
Of course it was a real knife.

I always bring a real knife, but I also have a policy of asking something to the effect of, "We need an item to symbolize the knife as a play aid. Do we want to use a real knife, or a fake knife?" Sometimes with friends I forget, but it's something I'm not careless about.
indie_insurgent
Jul. 24th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC)
I played a westerner and had the fun of directly asking an innocent request ("Come and eat with me") and causing major offense. As a result of my thoughtless blunder, the entire rest of the game was fraught with danger. Whenever anyone made a request of anyone else they were inviting themselves to be killed!

That part was awesome. I felt a little guilty, though, shortcutting the fun passive-aggressive speech that was happening before I came and fucked it up.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )