Friday, August 5, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

I've decided to split this post about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple in two, because it's getting too damn long. First (here) I'm going to tell you a little about the game, why I was drawn to it and why I like it and what happened in our first session. Then in another post, I'm going to get into some details about why I'm not sure it's the right game for my group.That's going to get kind of theoretical. I may get in-depth about "procedure."

So scheduling for our ongoing Vampire game has proven utterly impossible this last month for my group. Between vacations, work, and other activities (one of us is in a play, another is in a barbershop chorus, etc., etc., etc.) there's literally not a single day all of us are free through - I think we've determined at this point - August 14 (and we haven't met since something like the first week of July). I have a wandering eye where games are concerned, however, and it tells me that this is not a problem but an opportunity, a chance to meet in the interim with whoever is available and try out any game or setting that meets my fancy. Last Friday, that meant Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

I'm a huge fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender (the cartoon, not the movie, as devotees now must constantly point out), so Do - a storytelling game about superpowered adolescent adventurers helping people and getting in trouble in a whacky multiverse where anything is possible - was an enticing option. The rulebook itself is a thing of beauty, and I say this as somebody who owns it as a .pdf. The art, the layout and design, the in-universe letters that provide Pilgrims with their adventures, these are lovely things that make you want to play the game. The rules have a certain beauty to them as well, if that makes any sense. Two of them are "Pilgrims Fly Away" and "Pilgrims Grow Up," and these (with a little more explanation) are fundamental to how the game is played! I mean, I ask you.

The basic mechanic is this. Each pilgrim has a way that they help and a way that they get in trouble. My pilgrim, Yellow Clock, helped by being organized and got in trouble by being too cheerful. Each individual "session" of Do is based on a letter the pilgrims have which is a request for help from somebody in the wide, whacky multiverse they live in. The letter we attempted, one of the silliest and simplest, was about a tiny world that had been swallowed by a whale. The letter explains the situation in narrative terms, and also provides goal words for the pilgrims.

The players take turns. When it's my turn, I am the storyteller, and I can write a sentence about how my pilgrim helps someone (anyone - myself, another pilgrim, the letter-writer, someone else on the letter-writer's world, whomever, as long as my action makes the situation better). However, the way that I help has to be my way of helping. Then the other players, who on my turn are called the troublemakers, write a sentence about how my pilgrim gets into trouble, based on the way that I've said my pilgrim gets in trouble. In each sentence - mine and the troublemakers - you can use a goal word from the letter. At the end of the game, if you've used all the goal words, you get a "parade ending" - the problem is solved and the pilgrims go merrily off on to the next world. Otherwise, they get a "pitchforks ending" and are chased off in ignominy.

So example time: Yellow Clock, on my first turn, helped Melanie, the little girl living on the little planet inside the whale, get her house ready for the journey out of the whale. But, the troublemakers decided, my cheerful presence put her in such a good mood that she went off to play, and I ended up following her around picking up after her. Silly, yes, but sweet, I think, which is what I was looking for from Do. Some of the letters are a good deal less silly, though some whackiness will probably come in to any letter as the pilgrims stretch to make their ways of helping relevant to different situations.

Now there's a good deal more to the game: it's randomized so that not every turn is the same - sometimes you help but don't get in trouble, sometimes you get in trouble but can't help. And once you're in trouble, you can only help yourself, and you can't use a goal word when you help. And so on, there are a few wrinkles, and some fun stuff to do at the end of every letter as well. But that's the core: write a sentence to help, write a sentence about trouble, use goal words.The neat thing that takes a moment to realize is that the goal word mechanic actually enforces narrative structure. In my first turn, there's no reason I can't write a sentence that solves the letter-writer's main problem and end it, "...and they all lived happily ever after." But now everybody's going to have to write some weird, awkward sentences to hit all of the other goal words.

So, all of that I love. I find it delightful. And I loved it in play, as well. Like I said, silly, but sweet, which is just what I wanted.

I'll close with a brief "transcript" of our game.

First, our characters were:
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock
  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf
The exact nature of their "trouble" and "help" is left for the reader to determine. Remember, their objective was to free a young girl named Melanie whose world had been swallowed by a whale.
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge convinces the whale to open his mouth by explaining that it has mistakenly swallowed a small planet.
  • The whale is so alarmed by Burly Bridge's forceful explanation that it throws its mouth open and swallows him!
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock flies through the whale's blowhole to help Melanie get organized for leaving the whale
  • But he puts her in such a good mood that Melanie can't focus, and he winds up following her around cleaning up after her.
  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg feeds cookies to the whale - but to a whale, that's a dire insult!
  • Pilgrim Slouch Egg is so interested to learn of whale society that she placates the whale with her rapt attention and concerned questions.
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well builds a pulley system to fix everyone's problems, but the reciprocal force pushes him into the trees and he gets tangled up.
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well sees Melanie's cat in the trees and gives him a treat, and the cat repays him by clawing at the ropes and freeing him.
  • Pilgrims Whistling Wolf dons snorkeling gear and uses echo echo location to find and rescue Burly Bridge from the digestive tract of the whale.
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf notices someone else the whale ate - another Pilgrim in the digestive tract who needs saving!
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge harnesses the cat to the planet and convinces it to pull the planet out of the whale.
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock develops an incredible child-care itinerary that keeps Melanie happily occupied. 
  • But Yellow Clock makes the whale so happy that it begins to sing, shaking the house so much that Yellow Clock must dive into a door frame to steady himself and the house. 
At that point, we'd used all the goal words and earned a "parades" ending. Here's our epilogue:

  • Pilgrim Slouching Egg's conversation with the whale ends with the whale deciding to return to the whale homeland (plus she learns all about whales and gets all Melanie's cookies!).
  • Pilgrim Boisterous Well spends the remainder of his time in the whale playing with Melanie's cat, and learning the value of small things like string.
  • Pilgrim Whistling Wolf finds herself extremely lost in the digestive tract of the whale with the other pilgrim, where she stays until the whale hiccups them up - but she happily fell in love with her new companion and now boyfriend under the stars of the whale's belly.
  • Pilgrim Burly Bridge spent a few days impressing Melanie with his feats of strength, eventually leading him to knock down a wall in her house which he had to repair. 
  • Pilgrim Yellow Clock made a complete schedule of educational, healthy, and fun activities for Melanie, so she'll have plenty to do once the Pilgrim's leave.
Next time, some caveats about my particular group's experience with this very cool game.

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