17 October 2011

By Firelight: a campfire storytelling game.

UPDATE: You can read By Firelight: The Campfire Storytelling Game here. This post is about the original conception of the game.

Around two weeks ago I came across someone asking for suggestions for an RPG that they could play around a campfire. A lot of people were recommending games with few rules or dice needed to play, but to me that doesn't seem to capture that special something that telling tales around a campfire has. At the very least it doesn't take advantage of that magic.

This got me thinking. I already knew of one RPG designed for being played while hiking through the wilderness. It’s called Sherpa and it takes advantage of the changing surroundings as you make your way through a trail. I thought why not come up with something that takes advantage of a campfire in that same way? I typed up a reply that featured some quick brainstorming as well as a couple of suggestions. You can read it here if you are curious.

I really liked the quick little set of rules that had formed out of that comment and I’d be lying if I said the positive feedback didn’t encourage me to expand those initial ideas. That is exactly what I did. I took that initial set of ideas and I compiled them into a proper set of rules, changing things as needed.

The most important aspect of the game is that it incorporates the campfire right into the mechanics. It really would have been a shame to not use the fire since it was going to be there in front of the players anyway. I decided to use it in a kind of ritualized manner. Players are given pieces of paper with character traits on them and they are also given a paper cutout that represents their character. Traits are consumable and burned once used. Any harm that comes to their character results in pieces being torn from their cutout and being tossed into the flames. It’s simple, but I think really helps provide an atmosphere for the game.

Another thing I needed to consider and overcome for this game was that playing a game at night are not ideal for most traditional ways of playing RPGs. There probably won’t be a lot of flat and dry surfaces, light will be low, and outdoors there could be rain or wind causing all kinds of problems for things like character sheets. As someone that grew up in the Pacific Northwest I am intimately familiar with these conditions, so I wanted to make things easy on the players.

The first step was to remove character sheets. The character cut out doesn't have anything written on it. There is nothing to read so light is no problem. It is still paper and will be susceptible to wind and rain, but it won't be used unless it needs burning so it can easily be shoved in a pocket or held down by a stone. The same thing goes for the Traits, although they would all have a single thing written down on them.

Randomizers were the second problem. Dice were going to be a pain to use because the numbers could be difficult to read in the dark and without a large flat surface they would bounce all over the place. Cards had a similar issue, only they would also be susceptible to the elements. I thought about how this game would likely be played in the dark by the light of the fire and how burning things as a game mechanic was very ritualistic. I got thinking about playing on ritual and I recalled all of the films I have seen and stories I had read where people voted with black and white stones or had to draw stones to determine their fate. This was something I thought I could use in my game. It reinforced a certain mood and was something that wouldn't have problems with light, wind, or rain. To top it all off, there are plenty of stones available outside at a campground or park. It would be a simple matter to gather up some dark and light stones for a game if nobody thought ahead to bring something to use. I decided to go with drawing stones as a mechanic and used a simple system where black equaled a negative result and white a positive one. Easy to teach and understand, which was perfect for the kind of impromptu setting this game would be for.

I now had all of these ritualistic and borderline spooky game mechanics. I decided to go for broke and make it a horror game. I suppose it could be played in any genre, but ghost stories have a long tradition of being told around a campfire so it really all fit together rather nicely. I wrote the rules with that in mind and added advice for playing the game that kept the art of the campfire ghost story in mind. The only thing left that I really needed was a title that fit the game I had created. I decided to go with By Firelight. I think that the reason I went with that title is pretty self explanatory.

I wanted to capture that feeling of telling creepy stories and turn it into a game and I think I’ve managed to do that. I have posted the draft of By Firelight on Google Docs where anyone can read it. Take a look and let me know what you think.


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