PAX Independents: … and then we died

Being a ghost is a tough gig, even if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to be hanging around with a bunch of other ghosts. I mean, there you are all definitely deceased but not passing on, and you’ve got no idea how you got there. Passing on to the other side seems like a definite improvement, but you really want to figure out how your life ended first, right? So how does one do that? Well, you and your fellow ghosts will have to tell the story of your demise to one another, plucking fragments of words and memories from the aether and stringing them together. Such is the tale to be told with the storytelling game from Emma Larkins … and then we died.

Selected for the Indie MegaBooth at both PAX East and West 2018, and on sale at East 2019, … and then we died is, when you grab it, very simple: there’s a small pouch, containing a deck of double-sided tarot cards with word fragments on them, and a little booklet with the How to Play explanation and a few words about making sure everyone at the table is on the same page with what sort of story is going to be told. Now, usually I try to summarize and explain gameplay a little bit, but to be honest . . . I can’t really make things any simpler than they already are (which says a lot about how quickly you can get into the game), so I’ll let the How to Play section handle it this time out:

“Give each player a double-sided word fragment card. Place one card in the center of the table. Take seven of the remaining cards, shuffle them, and put them on a pile on top of the Everyone Dies! card. (For a shorter intro game, use three cards instead of seven).

Any player may start play. The first player places the card from their hand onto the table so that it forms a word using one or more letters from the card already on the table. The player may place their card adjacent, on top, or slide their card underneath, as long as the card(s) on the table are not shuffled around.

When the first player has formed a word, they draw a word fragment card from the pile and point to another player. The player pointed to must start to tell the story of the death of the ghosts from the ghosts’ point of view, incorporating the word that was just made. For example, if the first player forms the word “cat,” the pointed-to player could say: “I remember we were hanging out with a cat and petting its belly.” Once the player has finished speaking, any other player may go next. The next player adds a card to the pile on the table to form a new word and points to another player to continue the story.

Play continues until the last card is drawn from the deck, revealing the EVERYONE DIES! card. This signals the last round of the game, and the beginning of the end of the story. Players now must end the story, with the last player to place a word fragment card pointing to the person who must bring the story to a satisfying conclusion explaining the cause of the ghosts’ deaths. For example: a person uses the last card to make the word “door.” They point to a player. That player might say, “And then the door opened and the fire burst through, engulfing the house in flames. And that’s how we died.”

There you go, that’s the game! …atwd can accommodate two to eight players, although I could see a solo player enjoying a little creative writing exercise if they wanted to. “Anyone can be a storyteller!” is listed as the inspiration behind the game, but how do we go from that to a story game about dead people figuring out the nature of their own demise? Where did that idea come from, and how did it evolve? Fortunately for us Emma was willing to answer those questions, among others.

“When you put it that way, it does sound pretty weird! The idea originally came to me in a dream (which is not less weird…) I woke up with a vague idea of seeing visions emerge from some sort of randomized collection of items. These visions would lead to the telling of scary stories, like we used to do around the campfire as kids. At first I tried to generate these “visions” using pictures, playing around with grainy photos and fantastical Google Deep Dream creations, but the images never seemed quite organic enough. I stumbled on the idea to mix letters together because people naturally “see” words in collections of letters, and the format of the cards was established soon after that.”

… and then we died got its start as something called Confabula Rasa, and Emma still has some images on her site of the game during its playtesting days, so I was naturally curious: what was the design and playtesting process like for …atwd, and how did it change over the course of development?

“The game mechanics and the components are pretty simple, but it took a lot of development on both to make that happen. I created a software application to break common English words into fragments and sort the fragments by frequency to ensure words could easily be made no matter what combination of cards presented itself. I experimented with various rule sets to hone the storytelling experience and reduce barriers as much as possible – for example, at points during development the game was competitive, there was a “Fear” mechanic that used extra cards, players had many cards in hand instead of one, etc. I worked on the game for about three years, taking it to conventions and playtesting events and getting feedback from as many people as possible so that I could create the best experience possible.”





Now, gameplay hinges on the ability to create a word using the cards in play, so I wondered if Emma had encountered any roadblocks that that mechanic, and how she got around them if she had.

“I haven’t run a reverse algorithm on the fragments set yet to prove whether or not there’s a combination of cards that doesn’t make a single word, but as an experienced player I always see multiple words that can be made from every card combination – especially if you take into account pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, etc. My husband and I actually have our own minigame that we play with the cards between demos at shows where we try to create words we’ve never seen before in the 100+ games we’ve run over the years, and we’re always finding new stuff.

The issue I do see occasionally is players not being able to find a “good enough” word. In situations where someone is struggling, I like to use the power of the magic circle to gently encourage them to physically move their card around the table to make words easier to spot, and it’s totally cool to suggest a word to someone if they’re stalled (as long as you’re not taking over the game, of course).”

…atwd is solidly within the ‘improv’ range of games, and I feel it can be one of the more challenging ones because it’s so simple. Unlike Fiasco, say, you don’t have a playset to provide you with a framework, and there are no dice rolls or anything else to tell you how the story is going to flow. All you have are the words, although granted you’re all dead, so that’s a pretty effective guidepost. Emma also makes a note in the rulebook to encourage the “yes, and” mentality of improv, which can be another big help once you take it to heart. So what’s her best advice for a newcomer intimidated by this kind of game?

“My usual advice to people who seem nervous is “Say as much or as little as you want. For example, if someone made the word ‘cat’ and pointed to me, I could say ‘I pet the cat.'” I give the simplest, most boring example I can to demonstrate that anything they can think of is “good enough.” Some of my most meaningful moments playing this game have been hearing a normally shy person say a couple of words that make the whole group laugh. Having been a shy person for a long time and not often getting a chance to make people laugh, I know that it’s a powerful feeling to do so.”

It takes about …. 3 seconds of clicking around Emma’s site to see that she’s got an impressive number of irons in the fire. There’s …atwd and another game called Heartcatchers, some prototypes in the works, article writing, a published sci-fi novel, streaming, community organizing, speaking at conventions (I was lucky enough to share a table at PAX East ‘19 with Emma at a panel run by Pat Brennan of Offcut Games). In a general sense Emma tackles game design under the tag #gamedesigndaily. So I asked Emma to write a bit about all of these other projects she’s got going on.

“With …atwd, my message is “everyone is a storyteller.” Likewise with #gamedesigndaily, my message is “everyone is a game designer.” We all design play and games as children, but many of us let that skill lapse as we grow up. It’s still there, though, and it’s easy to reactivate by using simple techniques. Many people who want to be designers put a lot of pressure on themselves by having rigid expectations of what design should be like. I encourage people to take small steps, to be playful, to make a list of three potential game names, to play a game with friends, to read an article about design. To get into the game design habit, so to speak. I’m working on some bigger #gamedesigndaily projects (such as a journal and book), so stay tuned for those in the future!

In addition to having several prototypes in progress (such as Abandon All Artichokes and What To Eat After the Apocalypse), I’m part of #TableTakes presented by Gen Con, a weekly board game news stream, I do talks and panels at conventions, and I’m also a co-host on the Ludology podcast. I’m excited to release more games in the near future, and to keep speaking and writing about game design.”

That pretty much handled my usual ‘what comes next’ question, so I tried something different: what’s a goal Emma has set for herself in game design?

“I’ve had some amazing experiences and met inspiring people over the years being a part of the games industry, and I’d love to do more of that. I feel like I’ve only started to scratch the surface of what’s possible. Interactive museum exhibits, freeform LARPs, shortform digital games… there’s so much left to design! I’m also a big believer in the idea that game design can change the world. There are many areas in our lives from education to relationships to workplace philosophies and beyond that can be improved by design thinking, and I’m want to be a part of the bigger design picture in some way.”

Final words for our readers?

“I travel a lot for conventions and love chatting design and board games. If you’re going to be at ETX, Origins, or Gen Con, stop by and say hi! You can also hit me up on Twitter.

Thanks for having me!”

… and then we died is unique pretty much across the board, from the narrative premise to the mechanics to the final product of the story you tell together. It’s easy to get into, challenging but interesting to play, and can enable stories ranging from wacky pre-mortem hijinks to truly dramatic endings. Emma put in the work, and it shows.

You can get copies of … and then we died at Emma’s site, which also has a wide range of other cool things to check out, including the word fragmentizer she created to make the game.

Play your cards. Build your words. Tell your story.

… and then we died.

Thanks to Emma for taking the time to chat about the game! Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can tell your friends about us! You could travel through one of our fine and elegantly crafted links to DriveThruRPG which, thanks to our Affiliate partnership with them, gets us funds to get more games to review! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

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