“The Skeletons”: A Non-Review

I never set up my blog to be a review site, even back when I was just writing about writing and RPGs hadn’t become a part of my life. Rarely would a book strike me enough to consider writing a full-length review, even on Goodreads, and I’ve never really reviewed a game before. This is why the title of this post is what it is: I’m not a reviewer, but I have thoughts about how a game I ran went. Whether that influences your decision to buy or run it is up to you.

The Skeletons by Jason Morningstar (Bully Pulpit Games) is a “meditative structured freeform game for 1-6 players.” The book was an impulse purchase that I made when I walked into my friendly local game store on my birthday in February, and until recently I haven’t had the opportunity to break it out. I was immediately taken in by the tone (which, as you’ll see fairly shortly, isn’t a wholly cheerful one), the inherently narrative nature of the book, and how compact it was (which is a priority for me because I’m chronically ill and interested in running games but can’t reliably prepare and sustain multiple sessions of a campaign and still live my life).  The premise is a “flip the script” on a high fantasy dungeon adventure where players take on the role of the cursed skeletons who guard a mysterious tomb against adventurers, monsters, and other forces that violate it. Encounters with intruders can help the skeletons trigger memories of who they were before they died and about the place they guard, which is ultimately the point of the game: building up the mythologies of long-gone people and cultures, powerful relics, and ancient places that are left for the living to explore.

The feedback I’ve gotten since last night has been positive overall, so I thought it’d be fun and maybe even useful to reflect on how it all came together.

How I Ran It

The Skeletons requires next to no preparation from the facilitator or the players: the setting and characters are created during the course of play or shortly before. The only “homework” I did ahead of time, because the game stressed its intended tone and the fact that an uninterrupted experience was optimal, was to use Google Survey to anonymously gather lines and veils—the hard and soft limits on topics that would have made the game uncomfortable or harmful to play—and compile them into lists that I put on the table for reference.

We had seven people involved, including me, but I don’t think the game would have broken if we had more than six skeletons. I ran the variant of the game that uses a facilitator rather than the variants that pass that role around to everyone, so I did not play a skeleton character: my job was to be a timekeeper, rule clarifier, random event generator, and occasional polite prod for more information. Once the character sheets and map were created, each round went about the same:

  1. I had one player choose an intruder.
  2. I let time pass, which is a game phase where players sit in the dark with their eyes closed to evoke the feeling of being in a dark place for many years. For the very first instance of time passing, before the first intruder, I also read the back cover copy out loud because it’s really evocative. During these phases, I would also roll on narrative event tables.
  3. Once players were “awake,” I had the player who picked the intruder take the creative lead on how that encounter begins, with some feedback from me and other players as necessary.
  4. I gave the information about how many memories each skeleton could unlock during the encounter and revealed the narrative event I generated.
  5. I sat back and let them run the show until its logical conclusion.
  6. Repeat until the final intruder, after which point we sat in the dark for a time before officially ending the game.

What I Needed

Like I mentioned before, safety tools are important in all games, but this seemed like an ideal situation for lines and veils in particular. There’s aftercare built into the rules that suggests eating snacks while discussing the experience, so I brought some of those. I had a six-sided die and a coin with me for helping randomize the table results, but these aren’t necessary.

Most of the preparation involved gathering art supplies. Players are encouraged to sketch details of their skeletons on the character sheet, so I brought a sack of colored pencils, erasers, and a sharpener for everyone to use.

The collaborative map required a little more planning. The book recommends a large sheet of paper, but we decided to go with a whiteboard and dry-erase markers because there was the potential for narrative events and character memories to add or remove map features. We considered using the dry-erase tiles that we use for D&D combat, but decided that we’d end up falling back on old habits the moment we saw a grid instead of using the map as only a visual reference.

For creating an immersive environment, lights that can be dimmed or change color are great to have, but not strictly speaking necessary as long as the room can be darkened. I considered bringing a candle, partly for mood and partly to give people that weren’t comfortable closing their eyes for long something meditative to stare at, but that didn’t end up happening. I also thought about music or sounds, but forgot: something eerie and minimalist, or just a track of dungeon- or cave-themed white noise, would have been appropriate. I needed a timer for the time-passing phases and just used the one on my phone.

What Went Well

Everyone had a good time, which was about the best possible outcome and what I was hoping for. Everyone created a poignant story together and we didn’t scare off the new person, which are also wins.

I did have concerns about tone going into the game. I was worried about the temptation to go overboard with silliness or extreme darkness, both of which were possible. We found our stride after a bit and settled into a tone that worked for us. I had similar concerns about the periods of uncomfortably long silence because our group errs on the side of talkative, but those went fine.

The game wants to be played uninterrupted for the sake of immersion, but life happens. People need to use the bathroom, eat dinner because they just got off work, or clean up after puppies. Because the game intends to be a meditative experience, there aren’t a lot of built-in “breaks,” but people came and went as they needed to and it didn’t seem to be a problem for engagement.

What I Would Have Done Differently

I regret not explicitly laying out the lines and veils before the game really got under way. I shared them on the Google Drive folder for the game, and I had printed copies on the table, but I wish I had started a discussion about them before we started. All I can say in my defense is that I had an absolutely nightmarish drive to the host’s house (rush hour and construction season in Michigan) and was kind of flustered. I also wish I had supplemented the lines and veils with another tool, although things seemed to go fine once the lines and veils were pointed out.

I also wish I had run the GM-less variant rather than one that involved a dedicated facilitator. I thought it would be good to have someone whose only job was to occasionally poke things back on track rather than saying, “Surprise! You’re the facilitator now!” for every intruder, although it might have been workable after I ran the first one and we established a pattern. I don’t necessarily regret that I chose to do things the way I did because it was important that the players take the lead on shaping the narrative, but it did sometimes make choosing intruders and random events kind of awkward. Also, it would have been neat to build a character.

Alas, it’s the kind of game that you can run exactly once with any given group. Despite the rules variants, the three different base settings, and different character options and narrative choices, the experience is going to be largely the same across games where the exact same people are involved. So much of what makes this game different and interesting is the experience, and if the experience gets old, you lose a great deal of what makes the game work. It’s possible to play The Skeletons more than once with different groups of people, or maybe when it’s been long enough that the experience will seem fresh again, but I don’t know that there’s a lot of replayability.

However, there is the potential for the players to lift the dungeon layout, characters, magic system, artifacts, and culture that were built in The Skeletons in a future high fantasy game. What the group created was rich enough to be a good foundation for a setting and mythos with plenty of room to fill in the blanks with whatever is necessary for their story. So maybe I will be able to visit this place as a character, after all.