Have you ever woken up in the morning and felt like you’re not in control of your life? Like someone else is pulling the strings, or that you’re a shadow of your former self? Do you ever feel that there’s something irretrievably stuck in your life (possibly up your behind)? Or do you just want to give everyone the finger?
Well, Puppetland might be the roleplaying game for you! In Puppetland players take on the roles of marionettes, hand puppets, finger puppets or shadow puppets. Working together, the “actors” (as players are called in this game) direct their puppets in the struggle against the cruel tyrant Punch and his awful bitey hench-things, the Nutcrackers. This is a game of childhood innocence gone wrong, where reality is artifice but pain and suffering are very real. It’s a unique and rewarding RPG to play, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it for young children or anybody who’s been freaked out by the Puppet Master series of films.
Puppetland is the brainchild of American games designer John Scott Tynes. It has quite a long history – Tynes released the first version of the game on his website in 1994, and a printed version by Hogshead Publishing followed in 1999 (pictured right). After a successful Kickstarter campaign a new and revised hardcover edition of Puppetland by Arc Dream Publishing is due to be released in October 2016. Even in PDF the rules book looks great, and it’s clear that this has been a labour of love from everybody involved in the project.
I had my first taste of the game at Gatecon VI, the mini-convention that Gatekeeper Games holds every 3 months in their FLGS in North Fitzroy. In our group we had four actor-puppets. Falk played a hand-puppet called Duff the Magic Dragon who could blow smoke rings but not fire; Keith was Tiny Tim the Finger Puppet Who Everybody Loves; Mark played Ol’ Jimmy the Trickster, a shadow-puppet with a self-destructive habit of tickling the wrong people; while I continued my recent trend of playing gloomy-but-honourable hero-types as Patroclus the Amazing Trojan Mule, a life-size marionette in full Greek hoplite armour with the head of a donkey. Karl took on the duties of GM or “Puppetmaster” (sorry for mentioning that horror movie franchise again).
The feel of the game is quite dark and foreboding, even though the puppets start out mostly unaware of the horrors plaguing their world. But the darkness is there for more than just Gothic thrills; it sets the tone of the game’s built-in campaign, in which the brave actor-puppets must set right the original sin committed by Punch when he killed his human creator and usurped the Maker’s position as ruler of Puppetland. The game is about the loss of childhood innocence and the realisation that this is a fallen world we inhabit, full of vice and cruelty. As Tynes explains on his website, “Puppetland presents a world in where a single adult – the Maker – has created a world in which children – the puppets – can live safely. But the puppet Punch has entered adulthood, or is trying to, and has usurped the rule of the Maker. Punch is an adolescent, full of rage and confusion and the desire to strike out against authority.”
There are echoes here, perhaps deliberate, of Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven, and also of Frankenstein’s monster’s rejection of its creator. I can’t help but sense a postmodern feel to the game as well, which may not be surprising given it was created in the 1990s and by a Gen X-er to boot, possibly the generation most in tune with the postmodern sense for irony and cynicism. In Puppetland you’re playing innocent puppets who are aware that their world is constructed of items like cardboard and pipecleaners, but treat it as being real anyway. Come on, how postmodern is that? (Gen Y-ers can enjoy Puppetland as well, even if they’re a bit too self-assured to think of themselves as being “post-” anything).
Puppetland is a storytelling RPG, so there’s an emphasis on narrative play over game mechanics. Famously, there are no dice. Instead, both actor-puppets and Puppetmaster literally “story-tell” their way into and out of encounters. After the adventure we talked about our impressions of the game, and this storytelling aspect came up a few times. “I was a bit nervous at first doing this game without the usual crutches of dice and things like that,” our Puppetmaster Karl said. “Normally I bounce off the random element of the dice. Part of the fun for me is not knowing how things are going to turn out. Having all that thrust back on me, Puppetland is less random because of that.”
I also found it a little hard at first to work out how the action was going to play without the structure of sequential rounds that most traditional RPGs employ. “But I really enjoyed it later on,” I told the other guys. “I thought we all got more used to telling the story together, so that the second half of the adventure flowed really well.”
“I think that’s why you have to have four players,” Karl replied. “Four is like a normal number for an RPG; four for this game is probably maximum. I run a very big D&D game, and for that you need that structure of rounds. You know, John’s turn, Jim’s turn, Anne’s turn. As a GM you keep things moving and spread out. So one down side of running a system like Puppetland is that if you have a quieter player, they will very easily fade into the background. We we’re lucky with the people we got, and everybody engaged. But for people who are less forthcoming, a more traditional RPG might be more suitable.”
But I don’t want to make Puppetland sound like an exercise in amateur theatresports. It’s definitely an RPG, and there are three main rules that inform everything that happens which give the game a unique and memorable feel. These are:
Rule 1: “An hour is golden, but it is not an hour.” Each session of play can only go for an hour, regardless of how much in-game time passes. After an hour the game resets itself, with the puppets returning to their beds for a good night’s sleep. The only problem is, if the puppets failed to achieve their goals in that one hour of play, they may face dire consequences the following morning … To keep time we set up a countdown on one of our phones and laid it out in the middle of the table where everybody could see it. Initially the one hour rule struck me as too short for an RPG session. I mean, how many times have you played D&D for what felt like only 2 hours, only to realise that centuries have passed outside and that humankind has been supplanted by an intelligent beetle race from the Outer Rim?
However, in practice the one-hour rule worked to create a very real feeling of urgency to the adventure. “The one-hour rule was really interesting,” Falk said during our discussion. “It worked really well today for us time-wise, but I can imagine sometimes that would become a real issue trying to wrap something up in that time.”
“Yeah,” Karl agreed. “We did pretty good, you guys kept things moving fairly well and we got to the conclusion within 8 minutes of the hour. But if things start to fall apart in an adventure, that hard time limit of one hour ramps things up potentially very quickly. You’d start looking down [at the countdown] and say, ‘Oh shit, we’ve only got 2 minutes left!’”
Rule 2: “What you say is what you say.” This means that the actor-puppets can only say exactly what their puppets are saying. If they want to break character – and it can only be for something pressing in the real world like a fire emergency or the arrival of pizza – they have to signal their attention by standing up and moving next to the Puppetmaster. There’s no meta-gaming or asking the GM what rolls are needed to succeed in an action (mainly because there are no dice, as I’ve already mentioned). In Puppetland it’s say and do as you say, or not say at all. But with only one hour on the clock, my sense is that the actors will become so engrossed in their puppets’ plight that wasting time arguing about largely non-existent rules would be more or less redundant.
Rule 3: “The tale grows in the telling, and is being told to someone not present.” This rule brings out the performative aspect of the game. Both actor-puppets and Puppetmaster are encouraged to think of themselves as telling a story to an imaginary audience. We interpreted this to mean that we should announce our intentions like actors in a children’s pantomime, along the lines of “Oh, what’s that noise in the forest? I think I might go and have a look even though I’m feeling a bit scared!” To paraphrase an old saying, we all found this somewhat harder said than done. As Mark put it, “I think the most difficult thing was narrating your actions in first person. It’s not a natural thing to do, you’re not doing that in real life.” Karl agreed. “I thought we did deviate from that a fair bit. But I think with a bit of practice we’d get there.”
Character generation is similarly freestyle and narrative-driven. It makes sense that in a diceless game there are no numerical stats to roll up – or against, for that matter. Rather, the four character “classes” – marionette, finger, hand and shadow puppet – each have a base set of five broadly descriptive attributes that help define their interactions in the world of Puppetland. A marionette like my Trojan Mule could be described as “quite tall, quite stocky, heavy, slow and quite strong,” while Keith’s finger puppet Tiny Tim would be the polar opposite of “quite short, quite slender, quite light, quite slow and quite weak.”
The rest of the character generation is almost entirely up to the imagination of the player. There are three levels to this. First, you have to decide three things that your puppet “is”. Second, you list three things the puppet “can do.” And finally you have to come up with three more things that your puppet “cannot do.” To give you an idea, this is what I had for Patroclus:
- a brave warrior
- good at listening
- afraid of dying
- sing really well
- carry a heavy load
- push against anything
- kill anyone
- wear a bridle, saddle or chains
Character generation is another strength of the game. In most traditional RPGs backstory is just window dressing, at least in the early stages of a character’s development before they’ve been in a few adventures and accumulated a history. But in Puppetland the elements of your puppet’s backstory are its attributes. This is perfectly in keeping with rule 2, “What you say is what you say” – or in the case of character generation, what you say your character is, it is.
Our group really got into the spirit of fleshing out our puppets’ quirks and backstory. But I think it’s fair to say that Mark did the, er, fullest job of inhabiting his puppet. He heroically remained in character the whole time as Ol’ Jimmy the Trickster, a sneaky shadow puppet who came across as the illegitimate lovechild of Iggy Pop and that pervy old uncle nobody likes to invite to family events (kudos, Mark).
“I thought [character generation] was great,” Mark said after the adventure was over and he had gone back to being his usual self. “I wanted to work in tricks and things like that. More pulling down of pants and stealing things from people … The way you create your character without any numbers at all whatsoever, having three traits – things that you can do, things that you can’t do – I think gives you a great way to add your character’s personality into the game. Just very enjoyable to play roleplay-wise.”
As with the other character attributes, damage is handled in a unique and non-numerical way. Each character sheet includes a diagram that looks a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. This is where you draw a likeness of your puppet. (As you can see from my character sheet above, fortunately good or even just competent drawing skills are not essential to playing this game.) Every time the puppet takes damage, the actor colours in one part of the jigsaw puzzle. These losses are irreversible, and once all the parts of the puzzle are coloured in the puppet is destroyed, never to be played again. As there are actually 16 pieces in the jigsaw diagram, you could argue that this is the only traditional ‘stat’ used in the game, so that all puppets start with 16 ‘hit points’.
The interesting thing about this damage system is that when your puppet wakes up in its bed at the end of the golden hour of play, all wounds sustained during the adventure are gone, but the damage remains the same. To go back to Ol’ Jimmy for a moment, by the end of the adventure the shadow puppet had lost both arms and one leg. Ol’ Jimmy was reduced to tickling with his tongue, and I do believe if he’d lost that he would’ve used his shadowy bum. But the next morning Jimmy’s limbs were back, though he was still missing three pieces from his jigsaw. As Karl pointed out, sustaining damage like this in a one-off adventure isn’t a big deal, but in the course of the campaign against Punch it would be a different matter. “As a campaign goes on, the puppets are irretrievably driven towards their doom. If you get attached to them, that’s gonna suck. But I think that’s the source of the drama in a campaign as well.”
I really enjoyed Puppetland. It’s a unique game that broke ground for RPGs back in the ‘90s, but is still just as surprising and daring to play now as it was back then. Here’s my thoughts on the Big Three Criteria for RPGs:
Was it fun to play? Definitely. If you prefer roleplay over crunching stats, then the diceless character creation and storytelling will be a huge bonus. I also really enjoyed the dark but engaging themes behind Puppetland. If you like RPGs that make you think instead of just racking up XP, you’ll probably love this game.
Was it immersive? Yes, though the emphasis on collaborative, spontaneous storytelling and the absence of randomized game mechanics may make it hard initially for some players (and GMs) to get into the game. If you love D&D and have never played anything else except D&D, Puppetland would probably be a daunting second RPG to try out.
Would I play it again? Yes, and I think it would only get better with each adventure as you get used to your character and the unique style of the game. My only reservation is, oddly enough for an RPG, replayability. Given that Puppetland is designed with a built-in campaign that colours every aspect of the game, once you’ve played through the full story arc would it feel like the game was over for good?
I’m probably thinking ahead too far on that last point. Don’t let me stop you – get together your craziest bunch of RPG friends, base your character on that puppet that always scared you when you were a kid, and set off for Puppetland. And if you make it as far to see Judy, give her a big hug from me.
Games vs Play wishes to thank John Scott Tynes and Arc Dream Publishing for permission to use the amazing artwork from the new Puppetland rules book in this post. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, you can like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!