on wednesday, february 19th, six queer women gathered in brooklyn to put the shitty broken world back together. we played avery mcdaldno’s dream askew, an edit of d. vincent baker’s apocalypse world, a story game i’ve played and enjoyed a bunch of times. baker’s game is 300 pages long. dream askew is sixteen.
mostly, it gets rid of the emcee – the player who directs the game, introduces threats, fills the roles of the game’s supporting cast. these responsibilities are distributed amongst the players – “does anyone want to step in and be my useless brother rob?” i’d ask a few times over the course of the game. each player is also given a threat to the “queer enclave” that the story focuses on – rival gangs, the rest of society, the psychic maelstrom. that player is empowered to introduce conflict on behalf of that threat – though in my experience, none of the players had any problem introducing or initiating conflicts.
the other thing mcdaldno tosses is the dice roll. what it has instead is a system where players earn tokens by performing moves that develop their and other player’s characters that they can later use to act in ways that resolve or advance conflicts. for example, i played as the tiger, an enforcer whose gang uses force to keep the queer enclave safe from harm. whenever another player’s character relies on me to solve their problems (usually through force), they gain a token for playing to my character. i also have a number of “weak moves” – like revealing a secret vulnerability – that gain me tokens. i can trade in those tokens to perform “strong moves” – like leading my gang into battle, or abruptly seizing control of a situation.
so the result is that there’s a pretty clear escalation to the game. early in our game, i revealed several secret vulnerabilities – my busted arm, my love for my useless brother rob despite his tendency to get into trouble – so that as events escalated i had tokens saved up that i could use when situations spilled over into crises. there’s also something wonderful – maybe something uniquely queer – about a game that encourages players to demonstrate vulnerabilities instead of merely growing exponentially in power.
there are six roles, though mcdaldno suggests that if all six are participating, everyone might not get equal playtime. we played with six anyway. our players: colleen as rabbit, the torch, the seductive leader of the cult of the girlpile and the only one of us who truly knew of the coming threat to our community. lauren as spook, the stitcher, a mad scientist (and possible cannibal) who ran the body mod joint / clinic / women’s art space, but had a penchant for unnecessary “enhancements.” toni as zola, the maestro, owner of an underground club (you have to use a ladder to get there) where people get high off of plant milk. naomi as lark, the arrival, an outsider with a mysterious past whose body was concealed by bandages. merritt as pallor, the iris, an extremely sensitive and mopey psychic teen whom the maelstrom repeatedly targeted. and me as diesel, the tiger.
character creation in the game is pretty quick – pick a name, pick a description, pick a gender (“gargoyle,” in my case, a gender from the future that hasn’t been invented yet), pick some powers, pick something that’ll come back to bite you. the tiger picks an untrustworthy second-in-command – i picked a “younger, less-patient sibling,” a detail that ended up driving a lot of the plot. rob was good for nothing but fucking up and putting himself in harm’s way. i also played the psychic maelstrom, a threat i almost certainly picked just to get to fuck with my girlfriend’s character.
the rest of character creation consists of everyone asking the person on her left and the person on her right a question off a list – questions like “what were our characters talking about yesterday?” or “what did my character borrow from yours?” this makes sure you have some details to draw from when you start putting scenes together. a bunch of major sources of conflict were introduced here: the animosity between spook and rabbit, the presence of the rival gang the rimjobs, the sudden intrusion of a swarm of mysterious butterflies – or moths? these moths – butterflies? – ended up being the form the psychic maelstrom would take.
the story opened with a fight between a tall queer – “big bird” – and a short queer over a piece of fabric that the latter wanted to bring in supplication to rabbit’s cult of the girlpile. rabbit alone knew that our souls were rotting inside our bodies. over the cult’s tent, a swarm of butterflies – or were they moths? – was gathering, darkening the sky, a sight that did not go unnoticed by community newcomer lark or by psychic sensitive pallor – who was bitten by one of the moths. (butterflies?)
meanwhile, at zola’s underground tavern, diesel was negotiating with zola for information regarding the return of their bike – which pallor had borrowed. diesel was reluctant to use force against the rimjob gang, who had been giving zola trouble, since they were just kids. the negotiation was interrupted by big bird bogarting the plant milk. in diesel’s ensuing attempt to bounce them, their lieutenant, paisan, got his nose broken, blood and pus running down his face.
someone ran in screaming: the rimjobs had found something in the wasteland. having to escort zola and paisan to spook’s chop shop, diesel dispatched their fuck-up brother rob to investigate.
spook needed blood to rebuild paisan’s nose. diesel asked for a robotic arm. (“i don’t do robot arms. i do cyborg arms.”) pallor showed up with a swollen, pulsing bug bite. diesel stormed off to investigate rabbit’s cult. zola’s blood donation was contaminated by maggots. pallor received electroshock. lark showed up with a wounded, bleeding big bird in tow. one maggot emerged from the blood as a butterfly. (moth?) paisan got his new, enhanced nose. lark protected pallor from the moth – then received a psychic vision that something awful was going to happen at rabbit’s ritual tonight. “i shouldn’t have killed big bird for that blood!” lark lamented, before passing out. spook peeked under lark’s bandages.
at the tent, rabbit emerged like a snake from the undulating girlpile. diesel, irate over the defection of another lieutenant, periwinkle, to the girlpile, ordered the suspension of rabbit’s “dirty flutter” ritual planned for that night. suddenly, the rimjobs showed up with the bulldozer they’d found in the wasteland. on the bulldozer, a bull-dagger – along with the traitorous rob, now calling himself “robjob.” the gang wanted meatloaf. they were just kids. they wanted a home-cooked meal.
that’s when paisan showed up, his enhanced nose picking up the smell of meatloaf – coming from rob.
what ensued involved meatloaf lycanthropy, stunt driving, a botched, bulldozer-assisted dirty flutter ritual, the revelation of lark’s true form, and communion with the bug god using a the girlpile as a spooning, glitter-covered psychic antenna. pallor saved lark from self-sacrifice. as we stood against the psychic maelstrom plant milk turned out to be the answer. the butterflies were transformed into a rain of gumdrops, and the rimjob kids who ate the gumdrops were transformed into girlpile clones. rob lived, against all odds.
it got kind of silly, which is maybe a natural result of entropy in single-session games, as you all try to resolve the mess you’ve spent the last few hours creating. but it was definitely apocalyptic, and definitely queer.
my worry before we started was that it wouldn’t always be easy to come up with new scenes to advance the story, but once we started playing it was always clear when a scene should end and what the next scene should be. not having an emcee meant (for us at least) that sometimes a player had to be willing to step in and introduce something ridiculous to keep the plot moving. in principal i guess that’s what the threats were for, though few of them played a very big role in the game (the psychic maelstrom, the rival gangs, and the varied scarcities had the most to do). but not all of them were really necessary, and everyone seemed more than willing to allow bad situations to become worse.
zola, maybe, did not get as much “screen time” as the other characters, but toni still got a lot of great moments as the flirting, beckoning voice of the girlpile. asshole brother rob may have been the role naomi was born to play. lauren was maniacal, merritt was tormented and emo. colleen was a cult leader. she was absolutely glorious. everyone was brilliant and funny and inspiring. it was a good game.
before the game, we had a conversation about boundaries around sex scenes, which seemed like a good idea, since almost every character has some sort of sex move. (the stitcher, instead, gets to have people on their operating table.) but it didn’t end up becoming much of an issue – not a lot of sex happened. with another group, in another play, maybe more would happen? a boundaries conversation seems like a good idea, at any rate.
the game played out in a way that felt very similar to apocalypse world games i’d played – but without a single emcee, which i think is a quality i’m drawn to in story games lately. or maybe it’s better described as a “shared” emceeing. definitely people need to be willing to step up from time to time.
probably – unless someone was really interested in being the emcee – i’d play dream askew before apocalypse world. also, dream askew is free.