At our local indie game night, we played Itras By by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen. Itras By is a tabletop role playing game with a very rules-lite system, not using dice, but descriptive cards to prompt the outcomes in conflicts and twists in the story, and giving the players a lot of latitude to create the world as you play. It is a very collaborative game, which plays well in just one session, a bonus for gamers with busy lives. These games often use agreed upon story arcs or frameworks for the storyline, and distribute the creative tasks needed for the game among all the players. On his blog Black Armada, Josh Fox wrote about games with these kinds of “structures” recently. It’s a useful concept, and a word that I use similarly. These games use player choice or creative prompts to resolve conflict, so they are sometimes called tabletop freeform games, since they are rpgs played pen & pencil or tabletop style, and the resolution of outcomes in questions are done in a freeform kind of way.
There are a growing number of games that fit this description such as Joe Mcdaldno’s The Quiet Year, Jackson Tegu’s Silver & White, and Jonathan Walton’s Metrofinal. A well-known game similar in feel, though using dice, is Fiasco. I’ve just written a tabletop freeform myself recently, called Misericord(e). This is one of my favorite styles of play. And Itras‘ official release in English is happening soon. So it is a timely example of a type of game I recommend for gamers reading GAW who are curious about different styles of role playing games.
When we played Itras By, we chose to focus on a particularly compelling part of the setting offered in the book. This was Babelsburg, a film studio modeled on the influential, state-run, film studio of East Germany. Two of our party had lived in Berlin for some time, and one of them was an East German film scholar. The rest of us were intrigued, so we built the characters and the story around it.
We used a new gaming tool that worked well, a portable dry-erase noteboard. This is my favorite all-purpose tool for gaming and it worked great here. It allowed us to make the map provided in the book our own.
A brief note on the book: it is absolutely gorgeous. The illustrations are high-contrast, ink line drawings provided by Thore Hansen and Kathy Schad. They call to my mind Erté, Edward Gorey, and the imagery of films like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M.
The specific structures Itras use to guide play are: improvisational techniques like not blocking each other, using ideas that may seem “obvious” but that come to mind quickly and will be easy for others to extrapolate from, and keeping play flowing; Fate cards which you use to resolve actions whose outcomes are in question, each has a phrase like “Yes, and…” “Yes, but…” “No, but…” with evocative suggestions relevant to the setting that you incorporate into the outcome; and Chance cards which introduce larger than life themes and surrealist elements. We found it was always fun to pull the cards. They introduce unexpected results and energize play.
Itras By has a GM, but it is a very collaborative game. There is a section in the game text on collaboratively building ideas for the session or campaign, and also how to incorporate elements from the setting provided into adversaries and potential plots for the players to interact with.
Now, my group opted not to have one of us take the GM role. Instead we picked a concept (the film studio Babelsfield), chose a situation (the studio had declined in popularity and was betting everything on one big film that would hopefully save it), and then made characters with stakes in that happening (the director a former leading lady, a grizzled stuntman, a super-fan who wrote the script for the film, a brand new “It Girl” ingénue who was picked by the backers). The Moon Tower was conspicuously important as a thematic and plot element (when the It Girl actor, Brigitta, went into the film and met Nindra at her tower at the climactic moment of the game), and the mysterious backers were the Morphicians, giving us the name of the film, “I curse you to life”.
However, we followed the rest of the game structure. Surreal elements were introduced by us (entering the film, imagery in the film, super-real elements of gold and gems appearing mysteriously), the Moon Tower grew. And we ran with the mythical elements of the setting, the stunt man was finally revealed to be the son of Itras, who would build the Tower of the Sun, and so on.
The main adaptation we made to make it work as a GMless game was that we came up with a way to have each scene framed: the person on your right framed first time round, across the table on the second, and to your left on the third and final round. This arose organically from play and worked fine. And everyone at the table had played and GM’d many indie games so we were all happy & excited to think up scenes for the others.
Our game was tight, surprising and fulfilling. We all enjoyed using the map, and it was nice to have a well-realized artifact at the end. We definitely adapted the rules–since we didn’t have a GM–making it a bit of a hybrid between Archipelago and Itras By. Something Itras talks about that we did utilize, were playing scenes asynchronously, and using film metaphors. Given our setting each of these things really added to play. The cards, too, gave us direction: we pulled the “swap characters” chance card, for example.
It was very fun. I’m very curious to see how it would work as a GM’d game, with the intent to be for the players to interact with (lightly) prepped city inhabitants providing adversity. I can see that working better for players less accustomed to setting scenes for others and providing adversity, but I’m curious given the flexible and surreal nature of the city, how one would go about creating a world/adventure for others to follow through on. Exploring the world was so much a part of what I like about the game, I hesitate to think of leaving that to someone else. And if I was GMing, I’d certainly want to follow what the players were interested by. A question that came up was, say the group was a detective and crew, how would the investigations come about? I look forward to seeing other play reports and reviews of this game.
This review was made using a loaned copy of the game. No review copy was donated or solicited. The author does look forward to buying a copy herself, though, soon.