For a long time, we were at war with The Jackals. Now, finally, we’ve driven them off, and we’re left with this: a year of relative peace. One quiet year, with which to build our community up and learn again how to work together.
The opening words of The Quiet Year lay out the bones of a melancholy story. A community torn apart by war, a mysterious enemy gone but not destroyed, and the empty promise of a year of peace. No matter how desperately the community clings to survival, something awaits them on the horizon. Every hardship conquered pales in comparison to what is to come. When winter arrives, the Frost Shepherds shall also—and things will never be the same.
Overview & Setting
This melancholy tableau may not seem like much, but it is the seed of one of the most unique setting-building RPG’s ever designed. The Quiet Year is a mapmaking game about community and struggle written by Avery Alder, designer of much-loved indie games such as Monsterhearts and Dream Askew. It is generally intended to be run as a one-shot for 2-4 players over the course of about 3.5 hours, and requires a deck of cards, a stack of tokens, and drawing supplies. The conceit of the game is simple, spend a few hours with your friends crowded around a blank piece of paper, and watch as it evolves into a map of a dynamic and mysterious society responding to myriad threats.
The setting of The Quiet Year is largely allegorical, and lends itself to many genres and locations. At the beginning of the game, the community is supposed to be small and harrowed, around 60-80 members. They are recently free from a conflict with “The Jackals”, and are seeking to rebuild and strengthen their society which has been broken. This setup lends itself to the stories of refugees and post-apocalyptic wanderers. Some of the communities this loose structure has lead to in my games:
- A few dozen families rebuilding in the bombed out husk of a modern metropolis.
- A ship full of vikings fleeing from their war-torn home.
- A travelling merchant society resting at a desert oasis.
- A human sleeper ship landing on a far-off planet after the destruction of Earth.
Throughout the game the community will face many events which will evoke a sense of sparsely populated landscapes and wild dangers. And the conclusion? No one knows what the conclusion is until it happens. Maybe the Frost Shepherds are ice-giants, trampling over what you have rebuilt. Maybe they are a winter storm, ready to bury you. Maybe they have been in your community all along, and their rebellion is what you have been dreading. The options are endless—and all dire. Play to find out what happens.
Rules & Gameplay
There are really only seven pages of rules to read through when you start The Quiet Year, but set aside some time at the beginning of the game to read through them together. The rulebook is densely packed with structural guidance and pacing tips—it feels almost ritualistic to pass the book around, sharing responsibility as you lay out the initial aspects of your society. The first step is to agree on a terrain for your community to live in. After a brief discussion of location, each player sketches one detail on the map; anything can crop up at this point, from a winding river to a crumbling ancient temple. Most games I have played have had at least one mysterious cave, which always seem to be a hit. Then, each player chooses a resource, either physical or metaphorical, which will be important to the community. The beginning of the game is bleak: all but one resource is scarce and in high demand.
With these scattered details, the largest part of the game begins, and your society must weather the seasons. Players take turns drawing event cards which generally kick off a short scene and cause some addition to the map. The narrative leads are relatively broad, and require some amount of improv and quick thinking to make interesting. The second half of a turn is more free, where players can discover new map features or start community projects of their own design. Projects take a set amount of turns to finish, but usually have a significant impact when they conclude. This turn structure drives the core game loop: discover new mysteries or complications, then launch projects to decide what aspects of the map are of most interest to the community.
Everything about The Quiet Year is designed to spark new ideas. Cards prompt conflict, tough decisions, and power struggles. Blank spaces on the map beg for interesting features to be added. The emerging ethos of the community drives what projects they will undertake to change the world around them. The Quiet Year feels like the best brainstorming session you’ve ever had; wild theories are thrown around, surprising villains emerge, and factions are born. According to Alder, “Every decision and every action is set against a backdrop of dwindling time and rising concern.” This tension constantly shines through—as the seasons progress, events become more dire and tumultuous. Spring’s cards focus on discovery and exploration, then Summer brings internal strife and conflict, and Autumn holds disaster and chaos. When Winter arrives the tension is palpable, and every draw of the cards may be the last.
The overall experience of playing The Quiet Year is absorbing. Pacing can be an issue if your group isn’t careful about keeping the game moving, but there is always some new thing to discover or thread to pursue. I’ve found that every time I play I become personally embroiled in aspects of the story, and start to feel invested in fragments of the culture. What is happening in the sealed up windmill? Who lives in the mysterious darkness that covers part of the city? Why do we keep hearing hunting horns echoing across the hills? Questions abound, and in the end you really have to work to get answers. Part of playing The Quiet Year is setting your expectations: Not every story has a happy ending, and not every mystery has a neat conclusion.
Analysis & Innovation
The Quiet Year is a part of a unique genre of RPG’s that has cropped up as the industry has taken risks on more innovative design: collaborative world-building games. Collaborative games take the traditional paradigm of one person controlling the setting and the others controlling specific characters and subverts it, spreading narrative responsibility to everyone involved. Some systems incorporate world building mini-games into their rules as a kick-start to the main game, or give specific circumstances when players can define things in the world (Downfall, Archipelago, The Perilous Wilds). Other games have taken the idea further, and center primarily on the revelation and construction of setting for its own sake (Dialect, Universalis, Microscope).
The collaborative world-building genre has a huge overlap with another category of RPG’s, namely GM-less games. Structurally, games that distribute the role of arbiter among players often require that the players take responsibility of both describing the setting and generating conflict. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco is a great example of this design: players work together to define setting, relationships, and conflicts using a table of prompts. These prompts then serve as the building blocks for “tales of small-time capers gone disastrously wrong”. The one thing I have noticed about GM-less games though is that sometimes, even when played with skill and passion, the conclusion can fizzle out. Players may have conflicting schemes or contrasting storytelling sensibilities—pacing may falter. Merely by the fact that there is no central storyteller, no grand designer of fiction, the resolution of GM-less games can feel flat and unfocused.
The Quiet Year is no exception to this rule, and actually leans into the tendency by detaching itself from distinct characterization and concern over narrative fulfillment. You control something of an amorphous blob of a society—you rarely personify an individual character—and you are explicitly instructed to avoid letting a protagonist emerge. Interesting, compelling mysteries are exposed, but there is no promise that the threads of the story will be tied up. There are no epilogue resolution mechanics when the game ends; when the last card is drawn, the Frost Shepherds arrive, and the game concludes. At best players have a free form discussion about what happens to their society in the end, and if they persist. It must be emphasized though—these design decisions aren’t a flaw—rather they reveal that The Quiet Year is only a role-playing game in the loosest sense. In reality, Alder has managed to write the almost Platonic ideal of a setting-playing game. Where the game lacks characterization and narrative fulfillment, it excels at community generation and big-picture collaboration. I have heard great things about using The Quiet Year as a jumping off point for other systems and longer campaigns.
Alder’s newest game, Dream Askew, handles collaborative world-building in a different way. Where The Quiet Year gives all narrative control to all players at all times, Dream Askew takes a more focused approach. A collection of “Setting Elements” sit at the center of the table, and players can grab them to give themselves temporary narrative control of various aspects of the fiction. One player may seize the “Outlying Gangs” card, letting them pose human challenges to the party, while another plays the “Earth Itself” to describe the weather and wild animals the characters must overcome. This seems to eliminate some of the gripes players have about telling compelling stories in GM-less games, giving stronger throughlines to the narrative structure while still maintaining an open, enthralling involvement for each player. Both The Quiet Year and Dream Askew are amazingly innovative games that prove Alder is on the cutting edge of collaborative world-building and GM-less gaming. I would say both these games are integral reads for anyone interested in writing or hosting this type of experience.
The Quiet Year is designed to play a very specific sort of game. It gives you the tools to tell a story of hope in the face of peril. It leans into notions of community and collaboration, and also the bleak march of fate. Overwhelmingly though, finishing a game of The Quiet Year fills you with the knowledge that true collaborative creativity is possible. It lets you tell wild stories with your friends, and then gives you a physical record of your co-authorship in the form of a beautiful handmade map. The actual art on the map may not be anything special (I’ll have you know I’m no visual artist) but you will know that you took the time to build a community, describe each piece, and then tell a story—and this record will persist. A map is worth a thousand words.
I would highly recommend The Quiet Year for groups interested in collaborative world-building, stories of community, and intriguing system design. The game is available on Avery Alder’s site, Buried Without Ceremony, in both electronic and physical formats for $6 and $25 respectively. The pdf is great, but if you really want to treat yourself the physical copy comes with a set of wonderful custom cards to make play easier. She can also be found on Twitter @dreamaskew, and is well worth the follow.
I will part with Alder’s own words, which are the same beliefs that got me into telling stories at a table with my friends. I hope they ring true to you as well:
“I believe a few things pretty seriously:
We are strongly moved by and informed by stories.
Stories unify communities.
Stories reveal who we are…
My name is Avery Alder. I’m holding out hope that make-believe can change the world”
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