Dialect is a game about language and how it dies. Or, in my experience the stories that surround and form the language and watching them both come to an end.
This was a delightful game that turned out to be much more emotionally satisfying than I expected. I walked in thinking it would be more of a curious intellectual exercise than a roleplaying game, but I was wrong, it’s both, and that is really rad.
Of note, because we were playing in a three hour block, Hakan accelerated each of the three acts to we could make sure to complete the story. I didn’t feel like we missed out on anything, but if you played the game and are comparing notes, we had less words than you would in a full game.
Character and setting creation happened as part of one combined effort. We started with a prompt for an isolated community. In our case that community were Mars frontierspeople in 2046. 2000 people sent to Mars to prepare it for a colony ship that never came. Five years later they had become a society of their own. This was the story of those people, their language, and their end.
The setting is defined by aspects and problems (I believe one problem and n-1 aspects, where n is the number of players). As part of a new playtest, Hakan and Kathryn had created some sample aspects and asked us to use some of those as well as create others of our own. Here’s what we chose:
Aspect: We waste nothing – On a planet that is constantly trying to kill us, utilizing everything we could was the least we could do, and even that wouldn’t ensure our survival.
Aspect: Separated by necessity – Like truckers connected only by their shortwave radios, our isolation was spread all across Mars so that we could operate the extensive terraforming machines, however this meant that nearly all communication was done over the vids.
Aspect: Running from the Past – The kind of people that go to Mars for life are usually those who don’t want to stick around on Earth. The the old world was falling apart, it was still much safer than this red planet. We all had skeletons in our closets.
Problem: Emotional Desperation – The separation created a deep longing in the people of Mars. Vids and texts could not replace physical touch. Further, our stay here was precipitated by disaster as the communication array that allowed us to talk to earth had been destroyed in an explosion when we first began to colonize. We were all alone, even among ourselves.
The character creation process (and really every process from here out) required us to make use of the aspects and problem to define the salient issues at hand. If it went into our story it was related to one of these four elements. In the case of characters we picked two!
Demme Fern was a meteorologist who helped navigate necessary travel as well as preparation for the inevitable dust storms on the planet. Because he had to connect with so many people he had become the shoulder for people to lean on, to tell their sad stories to. He cared more about people than rules, an issue for Clove the security officer [Demme represented Separation by Necessity and Emotional Disparity]
Loretta was a trans woman who always felt out of place on earth. They came to Mars to get away from people but found they were lost without human contact. Though an engineer by trade Loretta signed up to be a supply transporter as it was the one role that allowed them to have physical contact with others. Because Loretta could supply goods, people came to them for personal effects and creature comforts. [Loretta represented Running from the Past and Separated by Necessity]
Nadine was our communications expert. Though comms with earth were crippled, she was the one that designed and maintained our short wave planetary transceivers. Nadine desperately wanted to come to Mars, so much so that she arranged “accidents” that crippled or killed the other, more qualified, applicants. In fact, when she arrived on Mars and knew that her crimes would eventually be uncovered on earth, she destroyed the communication array to earth. People came to Nadine for all technological needs as it were her skills that kept our existing tech working (I might have that wrong). [Nadine represented Running from the Past and We Waste Nothing].
Clove Burkshire, our security enforcer was the one trying to keep us all from descending into chaos. Clove monitored the communication, was constantly antagonized by Demme’s subtle but effective efforts to embolden people to seek out their own happiness, and generally thought everything would be fine if everyone just did exactly what he said. People came to Clove when justice needed to be enforced [Clove represented Running from the Past and Emotional Disparity].
With each player dealt a small hand of cards that had prompts on them like “death”, “bad open”, and “celebration”, we took turns doing the following:
- Associating a prompt with one of our aspects or problem.
- Telling a short story about how that prompt was connected to the story.
- Creating a new word or phrase based on that word.
- Framing a scene to two characters to play out where they have to use that word.
The words we made:
- 5×5, 10 Point was initially a call and response handshake initiating that systems were good to go, but for us just became something we said when you part ways.
- Linky, a person you spent time linked up to, especially so if the communication wasn’t officially authorized.
- Staysix, a bad omen or reminder of unlucky times, from when Station Six, which housed our freon supplies was lost and because of it our personal quarters are often insufferably hot and humid.
- Wearing my souls thin, an ironic phrase about the souls of shoes wearing out from heavy labor, but hardly every the case as few people walked, and when they did they were wearing space boots!
The story that unfolded around these words was that of Demme making it possible for Nadene and Loretta to connect, and for Clove to be infuriated by it.
In the second act a major event occurs which causes the language to evolve and change. We did a lot of the same steps as Act I but we also had the option to use our new cards (which had different kinds of prompts) to:
- Change an existing word by giving it a new meaning.
- Create new character that was emblematic of a word (which we didn’t do, but we did eventually make a word based on Nadene, see below).
- Do the things we did in Act I.
I our case, Nadene revealed that she was the one who destroyed the communication array, and from that we got:
- Mars Food, the death sentence, as someone was interred into a recycling plant.
- Linker, the pejorative derivation of Linky, used to describe people who break the laws governing authorized communications.
- Frequency 82, the light at the end of the tunnel, which came from our discovery that there was a signal we could send to earth.
- Touching Metal, the hyperbolic expression of “souls wearing thin”. Literally, I’ve been pushed as far as I can go.
- Dean, to make a terrible mistake, or suffer horrible misfortune. Slang. Like “I really deaned this up.”
The stories that accompanied these words were a moment of hope from Demme as he believed that contact with earth might ameliorate Nadene’s sin, followed by the rest of us trying to hold our fragile world together and knowing we couldn’t.
In the third act we tell the story of the how the isolation dies and the language dies along with it. We did this by all nominating a scene that would show the end of our story, ordering the and then playing them out:
The earth colony ship, now aware that we survived, did arrive, and they stripped Clove of his authority before he could execute Nadene. Yeah, given that it would probably take years to get a ship from Earth to Mars, that probably didn’t make sense, but we went with it.
Lorraine and Nadene said their sorrowful goodbyes, interlocking fingers as they said 5×5, 10 point.
Clove, feeling betrayed by Demme got into a physical altercation with him that ended up compromising both of their EVA suits while outside and dying. Yep, toxic masculinity, FTW.
In the end we put cards into the center of the concentric shapes that resonated with us the most as a final farewell before the ship with 25,000 people descended and assimilated our community taking only what it needed and leaving our personal effects behind.
These are questions they asked each of the players along with my answers:
Your name: Sean Nittner
Notes about the game: See above 🙂
What is your impression of the game. Be brutally honest: I loved the experience. As I mentioned above I expected an intellectual exercise. This was so much more. Our game was a beautiful one and I was very compelled by our characters and their stories.
Areas I can see room for improvement:
- The question “what function does your character serve in the isolation” seemed disconnected from everything else. It was one of the thing s we wrote on our table tent card so it’s presumably important, but it never comes up in game (unless someone makes a point of it) nor is it tied to the elements. Since you want the characters tied to two elements, it may work to tie their identity (transporter, security, meteorologist, etc) to one aspect or problem, and their function in the community (shoulder to lean on, provider of creature comforts, etc) to another one.
- There are a lot of steps (most, but not all detailed above) and considering how many of them are collaborative I could see this taking quite a while to play out a full game. I’d look at either:
- Giving individual players more autonomy when making certain word creation choices.
- Restricting the scenes to one per player per act (as we did).
- Using Fiasco and the Fiasco Companion as a reference for quickly framing and resolving scenes. Perhaps if you initiate it, the other person gets to close the scene, etc.
Did you enjoy defining new language? Did you feel like using the language was satisfying? I enjoyed our new language but wasn’t always sure we were doing what was intended. I didn’t know if we were creating words, idioms, or both. For instance Staysix was as word that had been formed by two other commonly associated words “Station Six” getting smashed together over time, but “Frequency 82” was just the two words which took on new meaning given their circumstances, and Souls Wearing Thin meant the same thing it would anywhere else, it was a just a phrase to show our exhaustion. Were those all the correct use of the mechanics? If not, how should it have looked. If so, perhaps clarify the kind of language that we might create with some examples or loose outline for both the facilitator and the players.
Were you satisfied with how much the story progressed? Very much so. I expected the scenes to be disparate excerpts forming a nonsensical potpourri of life on Mars. Instead he had single through line, with each scene following and building on the last. As the scenes progressed so did our character’s relationships, the timeline of the isolation, and our sense of impending doom.
What did you think about the conversations? As a whole I loved the little scenes, but I did notice a difference between some of them based on the way they were framed. The ones where we weren’t trying to accomplish anything felt much more natural. For instance, when we just decided that Nadene’s secret had come out and we were playing out the aftermath of it, I felt like we had a powerful change in the story and the characters. However, in the end when proscribed the outcomes of our last scenes before playing them out felt forced, like we were suddenly on a script and it required more acting out the part than playing to find out.
What were your rose and thorn of the game (favorite and least favorite parts)? Rose – definitely the requirement to tie everything (characters, words, stories, etc) to our aspects. It kept the story concentrated around our central issues rather than spinning off into tangents and it meant that the language we made reinforced those issues as well! Thorn – As noted above, I had some cognitive dissonance when we were making new words because a lot of them were idioms (“wearing my souls thin”) while some were customs that went from specific to broad (“5×5, 10 point”). All of that made sense in the context of making new language, but I was getting a bit tripped up around the word “word”.
What other roleplaying games do you play? Lots. See seannittner.com for my play history through 2007.
May we acknowledge you as a playtester? Would you like to know when we release open testing / Kickstarter? Yes and yes.
Many thanks Hakan and Kathryn for sharing this beautiful game with us, and thanks to Devon and Liberty for going on the journey with me.
Epilogue: Strange Dreams
I was writing this report late into the night and then went directly to bed. I dreamed of an Orwellian future that controlled language by executing people that knew forbidden words. I wasn officer overseeing an execution and rather than feeling pity for the terminally sentenced man I felt a curiosity to know his secrets and a sorrow that they would be lost. Upsetting to the waking brain, but seemed normal in the dream.
I also saw X-Men: Apocalypse last night and had dreams of standing on a beach where the water was filled with giant timbers and debris that started flying over our heads. My first reaction was to pull out my phone and take pictures. To my credit, I did get some pretty sweet snaps!
So yeah, pretty impressionable dream brain I’ve got some times.