RPG Review: A Thousand and One Nights - A Game of Enticing Stories
A Thousand and One Nights: A Game of Enticing Stories by Meguey Baker (2006, 47pp).
TLDR: 3 out of 5 stars "Lots of good stuff, but doesn't quite deliver on the promise."
I read the first published edition of this game, which has a blue and orange cover depicting Moorish architecture. There is a second edition - I'm not sure how its different - it may well address the concerns I mention below.
In A Thousand and One Nights players roleplay courtiers in the Sultan's court in moments of relaxation. They are gathered in the seraglio, the pavilion in the menagerie, or on the twilight gallery, and passing the time telling stories. In telling these stories, they are subtly jockeying for position in the court, and hope to use that position to either escape from the court or achieve an ambition. They also hope not to run afoul of the Sultan, who is easily offended.
The first five pages are taken up with the introduction and some advice on how to set the mood for play with candles and menu suggestions. Whether you serve snacks or not, this is also a handy reference for describing food in the game. The author will continue to emphasize the importance of describing the sensual aspects of the setting throughout the book.
The next fifteen or so pages are taken up with creating the courtiers. They are entirely prose-described, with no mechanical qualities. Again, the sense are heavily emphasized, and each player describes things relating to hearing, sight, sound, smell, and touch. They also describe a favorite article of clothing. Then come ambitions, and envies to tie the characters together. Names and roles in the court are also selected. There's certainly enough here to create interesting courtiers and a dynamic between them. And with no mechanics, this material could be adapted to creating PCs and NPCs in any game, really. This is good stuff - focused and flavorful.
The next eight pages describe the flow of play. Players take turn being GM, and on their turn they describe a scene in which the courtiers sit together and in which stories can be told. Once the scene is set, players are invited to roleplay their courtiers, and the GM has her character introduce a story. Other characters are then invited to participate as characters in the story, and a shared story is created. That's right - players play courtiers, who in turn pretend to be playing characters in a story. It's a little convoluted, but most gamers should have no trouble wrapping their heads around this.
As the story progresses, players can grab dice from a communal bowl whenever they wish to pose a question (or introduce a turning point) about some aspect of the story. As the story evolves, these dice are rolled and distributed to the players. By the time the story ends (after a certain number of dice have been pulled) all players will have a little pool of coloured dice in front of them ('the sultan's gems') which can be spent toward their ambition, toward escaping the court, or to prevent attracting the disfavour of the sultan. This is really the only mechanical part of the game, but I found it simple and interesting enough to satisfy the part of me that wants a game to feel like a game.
Once the dice are rolled and ambition is resolved, play proceeds again from the beginning with a new GM. The game ends when a character either achieves their ambition, escapes from court, or is beheaded by the sultan.
The rest of the book is taken up with an example of play, and three pages summarizing the rules.
This game is simple and flavourful, but on some levels it doesn't quite work for me. Although I liked the simple mechanic and the way it can steer character development, I found that the choices were not always meaningful. For example, to 'win' the game, you either have to be the first person to put five points toward satisfying your ambition, or seven points toward escaping from court. There's no mechanical means to differentiate these two things - you just pick where to put your points. So if winning is your goal, you would always put all your points toward ambition, because that's the shortest track to victory. There's no reason (except pure narrative) to ever put points into escape. And this means that the mechanics don't work quite as they should. Since the mechanics are largely there to drive story and 'winning' is not likely to be anyone's major concern, this isn't a fatal flaw, but it feels like it wasn't well-thought-out.
Another aspect of the game that doesn't quite measure up for me is that there's not a lot of setting, here. Yes, we do get some nice nouns and adjectives to describe the sensual aspects of the setting, but there's very little guidance on how to tell stories with Arabic themes, and certainly nothing to steer stories toward the kind of things that occupy the real Thousand and One Nights - those many stories about comeuppance and the learning of hard lessons about the injustice of the world. So if recreating the stories of the 1001 Nights is your goal, you'll probably be disappointed.
Players need to be able to bring both the setting and the themes with them, and it will be a challenge to find four or five people who will be on the same page, I think. I think this is a flaw that many collaborative world-building and story-telling games suffer from. You need to rely on a bunch of people to make up things on the spot without any prior organization. These things always trend toward the silly, in my experience, which can be a lot of fun for a short period of time, but always end up being slapstick pastiches. This is well-illustrated by the example of play in the book, which features a farting camel. That's not the tone that the original Thousand Nights and a Night sets, and I don't think you could recreate that tone while relying on a group of four or five people of varied experience to recreate it.
So, in this sense, the game doesn't really live up to the expectations for me. It's not a 'game of enticing stories in the style of 1001 Nights' but a 'game of silly stories with the trappings of a sultan's court'. Silly stories definitely have their place, but you should know what you're getting when you buy the game. If what you want to do is get together and tell some silly stories with your buddies with some of the trappings of medieval Arabia, then you'll have a lot of fun with this. If you're looking for something to inspire actual 1001 nights adventures (as I was when I first purchased it) then you may be disappointed.
I've given this 3 out of 5 stars. There's some really good stuff in here and you can have fun with it, but it don't think it gives you enough tools to properly emulate storytelling in the style of 1001 Nights.