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April 1998 | Updated Monthly


by John Tynes
$29.95, Acrid House Publishing

I was a little surprised when James asked me to review a role-playing game; I figure it would have made the perfect excuse for one of his pet nerds to explain away yet another dateless Saturday night. "Sure I could've gone out," I can hear Kyle or Jonathan saying, "but James asked me to write another piece for SurReview. He's _counting_ on me."

I should have more faith in my editor. My experiences with roleplaying games had heretofore consisted primarily of pasty people in capes, loaded down with Diet Coke and Cheez-its, pretending to be elves, vampires, and/or giant robots in some sort of adolescent psycho-sexual crypto-retaliation for growing up as dateless outcasts.

But this game, once I picked it up and got into it, got beyond the neccesary evil of rules and mechanics, this game took me back to a place I hadn't seen since childhood, except maybe in long, gnawing dreams. It's about puppets. Sounds childish, right? Fair enough. Childish like nightmares are childish. Childish like a sense of awe is childish. Childish like love and fear and hope are childish.

This is the backstory to the game, as near as I can tell: there was once a human Maker, who made all the puppets and had them live together in peace and harmony. Then the Maker's favorite puppet, Punch, rose up and slew the Maker, made cruel servants out of the Maker's rent flesh, and began to rule the Maker's land with cruelty and malice. A strangely Virgin Mary-esque Judy leads a sort of resistance, and dreams of the redemption of Punch and the resurrection of the Maker.

So right there you've got a game that takes a core subject matter that usually evokes childhood times and wraps it up with horrific imagery and deep, uncomfortable Christian religous themes. This constant juxtaposition of adult themes and childhood imagery really gives the game strength; in a way like _Au Revoir, Les Enfants_ or _The Lord of the Flies_, but less concerned with the a child's reality and more with their dream-worlds.

Within this framework Tynes gives some sample stories. One is an ultimately self-sacrificing attempt for one of Punch's servants to shed his evil nature and do good. Another takes us on an Odyssey through strange lands, including underground of decaying clockwork tended by windup dolls and a land on the far side of a great sea filled with Balinese puppets fighting terrible demons.

As far as the rules & game stuff go, they weren't what I expected: no endless incomprehensible charts or formulas. The person in charge, the "Puppetmaster", is supposed to hew true to the spirit of the game and some basic guidelines, but for the most part you just make it up as you go along. I asked my recovering nerd boyfriend about this, and he told me that some games had been moving in that direction in recent years (especially _Over the Edge_).

It was simple enough that I felt like I could take it out for a test drive after minimal preparation, so I assembled some friends, some vodka, and some vague plot ideas. I tried to send my friends scurrying around in a _Wizard of Oz_ style quest to find a distant, magic city. I got them there eventually, although my friends proved frustratingly difficult to lead around by the nose, spending most of the time fighting amongst themselves. There were a few moments where their declared action surprised me and I was left speechless, trying to figure out what to do next, but as the night (and the vodka) poured on, those moments grew shorter and shorter. I failed to evoke the mood of gothic decay I was shooting for, but a good time was had by all, and I have no doubt that with a little practice I could be running the role-playing equivalent of "The Street of Crocodiles".

As an artifact, the game is gorgeous. Slick paper, well-bound, sturdy covers, beautiful murky art, like a modern graphic novel with too much text. Presumably, the job of the art is to convey the feel of the world the game designer has in mind; the art here alternates between evoking the animation of the Quay brothers -- and anyone who's seen my films know what a compliment I consider that -- and coming off like illustrations from a book written for unimaginably world-weary children.

So, I liked it. I don't think I could play it every week or anything, but it convinced me that role-playing games weren't all irredeemable power fantasies, and maybe even led me to an idea for a short or two.

I should throw in a disclaimer: the author of Puppetland, John Tynes, is in some small yet vague way affiliated with SurReview. I've never heard of him, so I figured that's probably why James had me do this -- he didn't want to feel too guilty about plugging his friends. You can check out an early version of the game here.

-- Monica Arnzen


Copyright 1998
James D Thomas