Dec 1 2010

Game Poem 33: Insomnia


This is a game for one player who wishes to sleep, and six other players who are the voices who keep them awake. If you do not have six people to play the roles of the voices, players can double up on the voices, but you should not play with less than three, plus the sleeper. You will also need a regular deck of playing cards, which the sleeper will shuffle and hold.

The voices will surround the sleeper, and they will each draw a single card from the deck. (If a person is playing the part of more than one voice, they should draw a card for both voices, and hold one card in each hand.) Each voice will look at their card, decide what it means to them, and choose something that their voice represents to the sleeper: a idea that won’t be given up, anger at someone or something that happened during the day, the sleeper’s fear of death, or anxiety about an upcoming task or event, a song that will not leave the sleeper alone, hunger for one more slice of pie, anything.

After the voices have all indicated that they have chosen what they represent by holding their cards to their chests, the sleeper signals the beginning of the game by drawing a card from the deck and looking at it. At this point, all of the voices should begin speaking at once, insistently and urgently, with as few pauses as possible. Each voice should express in detail and at length their purpose to the sleeper. Each voice should strive to be heard and understood, but there should be no shouting. The sleeper will have no rest as long as a single voice is still active, so they must begin trying to silence them.

The sleeper will have a card in their hand. The sleeper will show the card to one of the voices, and tell it clearly and forcefully why it should be silent.

“I have plenty of time to finish writing that story!”
“He was never interested in me in the first place!”
“Women in my family have always lived to a ripe old age!”
“They’ll never fire me – they need me!”
“I don’t care, none of that matters, anyway…”

The voice may pause for a moment while it looks at its own card, and responds. When the sleeper shows a card to a voice, and that card does not match the number and color of the voice’s card, the voice may respond with one of three things:

  • “Higher”, if their card is higher than the one that the sleeper shows them
  • “Lower”, if their card is lower than the one that the sleeper shows them
  • “Not Red”, if they have a black card and the sleeper shows them red, or “Not Black”, if they have a red card, and the sleeper shows them black.

Each voice may only say “Not Black” or “Not Red” once; after that, it is the responsibility of the sleeper to remember which color card that voice holds. (If a voice finds themselves in a situation where they must say “Not Black” or “Not Red” again, that is, if they have already said that, and the sleeper shows them a card that matches their number, but not their color, then they may repeat it, of course.) If a single player is speaking for two voices, the sleeper will point to the hand that holds the card for the voice that they are attempting to silence, and the voice will hold up that hand while answering the sleeper. After responding, the voice will continue its verbal onslaught, and the sleeper will draw another card, and attempt to silence another voice.

If, however, the sleeper shows the voice a card that matches both the number and the color of that voice’s card, the player will turn the card to show the sleeper that it matches. The voice will go quiet, and remain silent for the remainder of the game. The sleeper will then draw another card, and attempt to silence another voice.

The game continues until the sleeper has either silenced all of their voices, or they have run through the entire deck. If they have used all of the remaining forty-six cards without matching every voice, their alarm goes off, and they must begin the next day without any rest. If they have somehow managed to get all of the voices to go quiet, the sleeper may finally rest, if only for a little while. Count the cards that remain – each one is worth ten minutes of sleep. Is it enough? We’ll see, when the morning comes…

Nov 23 2010

We interrupt these game poems for a brief announcement.

Hey poem people! Two things.

One: Yes, there are more game poems on the way. I have been terribly remiss in writing and posting, but I assure you that there are some in the pipe, and it’s just a matter of pumping out some more, ready or not. Life has been crazy busy lately with a new job and cons and all that other life stuff, but that’s no excuse. The purpose here is to create consistently, rain or shine, so I’m getting out my umbrella and heading back in.

Two: Part of what I’ve been doing when I haven’t been writing game poems is working on other, normal, “long-form” games. Those of you who know me from the regular Gizmet side have been asking about new board or card games, but I’ve been mostly (mostly!) working on designing and writing a couple of RPGs lately. One of them is generally unannounced, but the other is my entry for the 2010 Game Chef competition, Skin Men. It’s a finalist! But the thing about this year’s contest is, once the finalists are chosen, it’s up to how often a game gets played to decide who wins. This is where you come in, gentle reader. It would please me greatly if you would follow the link to download the playtest bundle, give the game a shot with your local group, post on the contest site to register your interest, and, most importantly, let me know what you think!

Skin Men is certainly unfinished; it needs writing, clarifications, expansion, balancing and testing, but it is 90% playable, and 100% guaranteed to be a good time regardless. If you have any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to poke me. And don’t hesitate to play! The contest ends on December 15th, so get your gaming in now!

Thanks, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled game poetry.

Oct 18 2010

Game Poem 32: The Invaders

The Invaders

This is a game for an even number of players, around six to twelve, but more should work just fine. (If you wind up with an odd number of players, that’s not an insurmountable problem; one player will just sit out in each round.) You’ll need a number of index cards, one for each player. One of these cards will have a black spot or mark of some kind clearly drawn on it. Shuffle up the cards, and hand one to each player; the players should not know which one of them received the card with the spot. The player who received the mark is the first Invader. Their minds have been corrupted by an alien presence, and they will attempt to similarly infect the other, still human, players.

Each player will write three true things about themselves on the card, in order: Something that should be immediately obvious upon first meeting them, something that would be noticed about them after watching them or talking to them for some time, and something that describes something about their internal life, such as a belief or personal preference. The Invader will do the same, but they will also mark the last item (the internal trait) with an X. This represents their corruption, which will spread through the players as the game progresses.

The game is played as a series of short conversations, just a minute or two each. To begin a round of conversations, someone should set a timer for a minute or so, and the players should break into pairs. Conversations should be held discreetly, so that other players are unlikely to eavesdrop on their content or outcome. Clearly, it is preferable to mix up the conversations thoroughly, so the players should always choose to talk with someone that they haven’t talked with before, if possible. Start the timer, and begin chatting with each other.

There are just a few rules about the conversations. If something related to one of the items on your cards comes up, you must talk about it honestly, as written. However, if one or more of the three statements on your card has an X next to it (as the initial Invader will have) then you must actively try to bring that up in the conversation, and you must lie about what you have written; you are forbidden from telling the truth about that item, and must in fact attempt to mislead the other person as well as possible, no matter how ridiculous it might seem.

So, for example, you may have “I love chocolate!” in the third position, and it is marked with an X on your card. In the course of your conversations, you must make it a point to assert how loathsome you find chocolate to be. Likewise, if you’ve noted down that you’ve never pierced your ears as your second statement, you must be sure to talk about your favorite earrings, even though it may be clear that it’s quite unlikely that you’d be able to wear them.

When the timer sounds after a minute or so, quickly wrap up your conversation, and one person must end with the phrase, “Are you okay?” How the players respond to this question depends on whether they have been infected by the Invader or not. (If a player has one or more Xs on their card, they are now an Invader.) Both players will respond with a gesture at the same time, either an okay sign, or with their index finger pointed like a gun. Humans will make these gestures with their right hands, Invaders with their left.

If you’re a human, and you make an okay sign with your right hand, that means that you think that the other player is still uninfected. If both of you are still fully human, and you both do this, you each get to put a check mark (*not* an X) next to one of the statements on your cards that came up in your conversation, affirming your humanity. If none of the statements on your card came up in conversation, you may not check any in this way. An okay sign has no effect on an Invader other than letting them know that you are human, and think that they are okay.

If a human points their finger like a gun at their conversation partner, that means that they think that they are infected by the Invaders. Pointing at an Invader will force them to remove the topmost X from their card; if they no longer have any items with an X next to them, the corruption has been completely removed from that person, and they are human once again.

However, if they point their finger at another human, they suffer for their false accusation! The human player who points their gun-finger at another human player must cross off one of the statements on their card, and may no longer use that statement in conversation in any way. Additionally, if there were check marks associated with that statement, they are lost as well. If a human player is ever forced to cross off an item that has no check marks next to it, they are immediately removed from the game! Attacking other humans is dangerous business.

If an Invader uses their left hand to point their index finger at the other player, they are attempting to corrupt their conversation partner. Their target marks the lowest unmarked statement on their card with an X. They are now an Invader as well, and must be actively dishonest about that item in future conversations. If the target winds up with all three of their statements X’d out, they have been fully transformed, and may not be corrupted or attacked further. A transformed Invader must reveal themselves as such at the beginning of their conversations; they may discuss the nature of the Invaders with their human partners, taunt or threaten them, or simply continue to creepily pretend to be human, although they are clearly nothing of the sort.

If an Invader chooses to make the okay sign with their left hand at the end of a conversation, they are simply activating some kind of protection. Invaders who do this are not affected by a human pointing at them. This clearly has no effect on other Invaders, other than affirming that you are, in fact, infected with the alien corruption.

The game will continue over a number of rounds equal to the number of starting players. At the end of the game, get together and reveal everybody’s cards, totaling up the check marks for humanity, and the Xs for the Invaders. if there are twice as many check marks at Xs, the humans have enough wherewithal to drive out the Invaders’ corruption. You may briefly narrate how this happens. If, however, there are twice as many Invaded players as there are humans, the Invaders are able to round up the humans like cattle, and bring their alien schemes to completion. Of course, if it is clear at any time there are no longer any Invaders, or that there are no uninfected humans, the appropriate side may be declared winners then and there. Otherwise, play it out to the bitter end, and see which side prevails!

Aug 25 2010

Twenty-Four Game Poems book at Lulu!

This was ready a few days ago, and me being me, I just realized that the place that I should be promoting it is right here. So, here it is!

The very same edition of the Twenty-Four Game Poems book that I printed up in a limited edition for GenCon 2010 is now available for purchase on It’s not signed and numbered, but it is thoroughly edited and laid out all pretty, so if you weren’t able to get your hands on a copy, now you can!

This took an awful lot of time and effort to put together, but it was totally worth it. I imagine that I’ll do another edition in six months or so, so if you’re liking what you’re seeing, keep your eyes peeled…

(I also have three new game poems lined up and ready to go once I make with the writey-writey and editing and whatnot, so those should be coming out sometime this week, barring disaster or sloth.)

Aug 14 2010

Game Poem 31: Bear Season

This game requires around four to six players. Together, you will play the part of a bear in its natural habitat, each of you taking on a different aspect of the animal. Each player selects a part of the bear to embody, no two choosing the same. One player may portray the teeth of the bear, another the claws; one may choose to speak for the bear’s nose and sense of smell, and someone else may take the part of the bear’s eyes, and tell what it sees. Someone may choose to be the bear’s hide and fur, or its stomach, its hunger, driving it towards food and prey, or the bear’s heart, its courage and instincts, or its fear and wariness towards mankind.

Oh yes, there is also a hunter out there somewhere. Perhaps he hunts the bear, or maybe he is after some other game, and has merely wandered into the bear’s territory. Will they cross paths, and if they do, will one pose a threat to the other, or will they find a way to pass each other without a confrontation? Choose an object, a marker to show where the hunter is in the circle of players. If you can find an arrowhead, or a spent shotgun shell, or something similar to represent the hunter, excellent. If not, any kind of stone or metal marker will do.

Select one player to hold the hunter’s marker to begin. The player on their left will begin the bear’s story by taking on the role of Nature, and set the initial scene that the bear finds itself in. They will describe the season, what time of day it is, and the bear’s surroundings. The bear may find itself swatting trout out of a rushing stream on a sunny summer day, or curled up sleeping in a hollow, waiting for the last winter snows to melt away. It may be rummaging in leafy underbrush of the forest, or climbing a tree to find a meal of tasty fruits and acorns, or snuffing around after a mate in the spring.

Once the stage is set, the Nature player may add a detail or two, something that might interest or intrigue the animal. In turn, the other players will describe how their aspects of the bear would react to the the setting and the details presented. If the bear finds a burrow, its nose may smell a litter of baby foxes, its claws may wish to dig it out, or its sense of curiosity may simply growl into it, to see what happens. In a winter storm, the bear’s fur may simply wish to seek shelter under a snow drift, but its stomach may wish to press on to fill the bear’s belly before settling down.

The one restriction on the aspects’ descriptions is this: if a player holds the hunter’s token, they must incorporate an element of danger into their part’s bit of narration. Does the nose smell a human nearby? Perhaps the ears heard the crack of gunshots in the distance. Or is that the howl of wolves? The hide may be reminded of an old scar, or the heart may remember being bested by an older bear in a scrap last season. Whatever it is, the additional narration must potentially pose some kind of direct or indirect jeopardy to the bear.

When all the other players have described what their aspects sense or desire, the Nature player chooses one of them to focus on over the others, and tells the brief tale of how the scene is resolved. Does the bear eat its nuts and berries and fall asleep peacefully under the oak tree? Does it find a place to hibernate through the winter, or find a mate in the spring? Is it bitten on the snout when it goes digging recklessly into a badger’s den, or clumsily fall into the river while fishing? Or was that indeed a pack of wolves howling into the night, harrying the bear until the dawn?

Normally, when the scene is ended, the player who holds the hunter’s marker passes is to the player on their right. However, if the Nature player chose the description that held additional danger, the one described by the player holding the hunter’s marker, the hunter’s marker will immediately pass to that player who took the role of Nature. The player on their left will then become the new Nature player, and set a new scene for the bear to experience and react to.

One thing. If the player who is playing the role of Nature begins their turn describing a scene, and they also hold the hunter’s marker, they must incorporate the hunter himself into the scene. The hunter’s presence must by physical and immediate. All of the bear’s aspects must directly address the hunter’s sudden appearance in their reactions. When choosing an outcome, the Nature player must resolve the conflict between the hunter in the bear in some way. The scene will not necessarily end with the demise of the bear or the hunter, but if it does, the game will end when that scene ends. If both the bear and the hunter survive the confrontation, pass the hunter’s marker and the role of Nature as usual, and continue until one of them kills the other, or until you feel that the bear’s story has been fully told. If both carry on through this story, it is entirely possible that one or both of them will appear the next time this game is played.

Aug 10 2010

Game Poem 30: The Winter Hunt

It is winter. You are the Siverati, a tribe of people who have lived here since the First Ages. This year, there was a sickness that struck down many of your number. Winter arrived early. Food has been in short supply, and game is scarce this season. There are few of you left. Spring will come in four weeks. In four weeks, the sun will return. If you can survive the winter, the rivers will thaw, and those who remain will have plenty to eat. Still, the game is scarce this winter. To rely on the traditional ways of hunting will mean certain starvation. The tribe’s only recourse is to return to the old ways, to enter the Dream.

To play the Winter Hunt, you will need a fair-sized group of people. Five to eight hunters would be ideal. If there are fewer than five players, each of you should play two hunters apiece. To play, you will need four coins for each hunter. There are a few areas of concern, places that the coins will move in and out of. The first is the tribe’s food supply. Put one coin for each hunter into the food supply. Each of these coins will feed one person for one week The second area is the hunting grounds. Put one coin for every two hunters in the hunting grounds. These first coins will each stand for one small animal. The final area is the draw pile. Put all of the remaining coins in the draw pile. These coins represent only potential.

To begin the first week of hunting, each tribesman will take one coin from the food supply, leaving it empty. Since there is so little game in the hunting grounds, some of the hunters will need to enter the Dream to ask more animals to come to you. Without discussing who will take which role, each player will decide whether their hunter or hunters will hunt or dream by secretly choosing heads or tails on each hunter’s coin. When all have decided, everyone will reveal their coins at the same time, place their coins back into the draw pile, and the Dream will begin.

The dreamers, if any, must decide how many animals they will call upon, and how large they will be. The dreamers must form groups of one, two, or three. Each group of dreamers will describe the game that they wish to summon to the hunting grounds. A single dreamer will call small game, snow rabbits or squirrels. Two dreamers may call something larger, perhaps a wild pig or a deer. Three dreamers will be calling the largest game possible, something the size of an elk, something that will feed many tribesmen well. The groups of dreamers will throw their coins in turn. As long as one dreamer in a group throws a head on their coin, the animal that they have summoned will appear in the hunting grounds. Place the successfully summoned game into the hunting grounds by placing the single coins down, or stacking the coins in twos and threes. Successful groups of dreamers must tell together how the game answered them, and agreed to enter the hunting grounds. Unsuccessful dreamers must speak together to tell how the animal that they asked to come to them refused the call.

Now, if there is game to be had, the hunters will take their turn. Again, the hunters will go out in groups, this time of any size. A single hunter may go into the hunting grounds alone, or all the hunters may go in one large group. In turn, the groups of hunters will tell which game they will seek. Whichever animal they wish to hunt, that group of hunters must throw their coins and reveal enough heads to match the size of the animal. A single hunter may throw one coin to bring back a small animal, or a half-dozen hunters may band together to bring down a three-coin moose – a grand feast for those who hunger! Whatever the size of the band of hunters, if they do not throw the necessary heads to succeed in their hunt, they must each tell the tale of how they failed to bring back food for the tribe. If they are successful, though, each hunter must each tell the story of their skill and bravery as they bring the game back to the tribe’s food stores.

A small one-coin animal will add three coins to the food stores. A medium-sized two-coin animal will add seven coins to the tribe’s stores, and a large three-coin beast will add fifteen coins to the food supply. Clearly the larger game are more difficult to bring back successfully, but the risk may well be worth it. It is possible, of course, that there are no animals in the hunting ground this time. In that case, tell the tale of how the hunters sit around the dying fire, perhaps cursing the Dream for abandoning them, or pleading with it to send them just one small bird to quiet their growling bellies.

At the end of the hunt, the tribe must eat. Each hunter must take one coin from the food supply, if possible. If there are not enough coins to feed every hunter, the tribe must decide in some way who will eat and who will starve. If a hunter starves, they die, leave the game, and must describe their fate. Do they lay in their beds until they are too weak to awaken, or do they walk into the snows, never to be seen again? When a hunter eats, they must tell tale of their meal, how it makes them feel, to eat when others do not. They must tell of the thanks that they give to the animal that surrendered its own life for theirs, and they must tell of the thanks they give to the Dream, which brought them everything that they have.

When the consuming of food and the fates of the dead are dealt with, a new hunt must begin. Each surviving hunter will again decide whether they will hunt or dream, and secretly set and reveal their coin. The coins will be returned to the draw pile, the dreamers will dream, the hunters will hunt, game will be caught and eaten, and some will likely starve to death again. This cycle will take place four times, until winter breaks, and the sun returns to the land of the Siverati. If any of the hunters have survived, they will find fresh game again in the spring, and their tribe will flourish once again. If all of the hunters have starved to death, then all of the Siverati have returned to the Dream once more, perhaps to be reborn again one day.

Aug 10 2010

Three Weeks Behind

Okay, so the official excuse is that I spent two weeks doing daytime childcare in addition to regular work and editing and laying out and finishing the artwork for the Twenty Four Game Poems book that I released at GenCon this year.

Then I went to GenCon. Which was awesome.

So, the reality is that I’m at least three weeks behind. I’d like to call for another game-a-day run to make up for it, but, to continue the bummer that is reality, work is picking up this week, and I have a lot of post-travel catching up to do. The good news is that the book was very well received at the con, so I really do feel like I’ve been spending my time doing something worthwhile. As long as people are enjoying the games, I’m counting it all as a win.

But, enough jibber-jabber. Back to writing – there will be a new game poem up in the next day or so, with plenty more to come! I expect to be caught up by the end of next week – that should take us to number thirty-three or thirty-four – and after that, keep up all regular-like.


Jul 23 2010

Game Poem 29: Mask

This is a game that will accommodate any number of players, but will likely work best with a smallish number; definitely not less than three, probably no more than five or six. To play, you must create a mask. The mask will be constructed from a single piece of letter sized white paper (8.5×11, or A4). Just draw two simple eyes – just circles about the size of quarters – about halfway down the page, so they’re  as far apart from each other as they are from the edges. The mouth will be a straight line drawn about halfway between the eyes and one of the short edges, just straight across, as wide as the eyes are apart. Do not poke or cut out the eye holes. You don’t need to attach a string or rubber band to hold the mask on anyone’s head – players will just hold the mask up in front of their faces when they want to use it.

Choose the most shy player to wear the mask first. That player will hold the mask in front of their face for a few minutes, and play the character that emerges. Everyone else will play as themselves. To begin, give the mask a simple gender-neutral name, like Sam or Alex. One of the players will greet the mask, and say hello. “Hello, Sam! How are you?” The player wearing the mask is now “Sam”, and will respond as such. When wearing the mask, the player should respond slowly and smoothly, without twitching around or making any quick or sudden moves. When someone talks to the mask, the mask should unhurriedly turn to face the person and respond naturally, in a voice that fits the mask. So, the mask will turn to look at the person who greeted them, and say hello back. All that is happening now is a regular conversation, just normal everyday chit-chat between the players and their new friend, the mask.

The conversation with the mask will last for a couple of minutes, and then someone will say goodbye, and the person who was wearing the mask will hand the mask to another player, and as they do, tear off a small piece of paper from the corner of the mask, and roll it into a small ball. The new player will hold the mask in front of their face, and play the same character. (So, really, there will be a number of “characters” in this game equal to the number of players, plus one: everyone playing themselves, and the character that emerges from the mask.) When the new player has taken on the role of the mask, someone should greet the mask again (“Hello, Sam!”), and you will have a short conversation again, only a couple of minutes. When the conversation is done, say goodbye, and a new player will take the role of the mask. Make sure that whenever a player takes off the mask, they take a small piece of paper from the corner of the mask, and roll it into a small ball. Also be mindful of who you are handing the mask to – try not to give it to the player who just handed it to you. You will do this a few times, just talking to your new friend, and taking turns between the all the players playing themselves, and playing the character of the mask.

Eventually, maybe after switching the mask between players three or four times, shortly after one of the players takes on the role of the mask, just after someone says hello to the mask character, one of the players will say, “I have to tell you something.” Then they will say the name of the person who is currently wearing the mask, and they will say, “…They mean to do you harm.” The mask can react to that revelation however they like, but remember that they should still be making slow, gentle movements, and they should still be using a voice that is appropriate to the character of the mask. Let this conversation go however it goes for another minute or two, and then say goodbye and pass the mask to another player.

Have another conversation or two, until at some point, one of the players will say, “You know…” And then they well say the name of the person who is currently wearing the mask, and add, “They mean to help you out.” (This person cannot be the same person who intends to do the mask harm, as you may have guessed.) The mask can react to this announcement however they like, but remember to maintain your steady movements and the voice of the mask. Continue the conversation for another minute or two, and then say goodbye and pass the mask to another player.

Eventually, the mask will be ready to confront the person who intends to do it harm. It should make sure that it can see both the person who wants to harm it, and the person who it knows will help it. When the mask is ready, after the players say hello, it can ask the person who intends to hurt the mask why they want to hurt them, what they intend to do, and so on. The mask can react to them however they wish, but this will be the last time that the players talk to the character of the mask. This time, when the player who is currently playing the mask takes the it off, you will determine the ultimate fate of your new friend. Each player will give the small paper balls that they have collected to either the person who will harm the mask, or the one who will help it. Whichever of the two has more paper balls will get their way – in the case of a tie, the person who had the mask last will decide the winner. Once the decision is made, that person – the helper or the hurter – may do whatever they want with the mask, save it or destroy it. After that, the character of the mask is gone, and the game is over.

Jul 7 2010

Game Poem 28: Public Trust

This poem is a game intended to be performed in front of and with an audience. It should run about ten minutes, give or take. Any number of people can be in the audience – the more the better – and it should be performed in a space where people can stand up and move around a little bit. The presenter just needs to read the following rules out loud to the players in attendance, and if they want to and are able to affect the stereotypical “poetry slam” pacing and cadence in their presentation, so much the better.

This poem is a game. Your attendance implies your consent to take part as a player here.

The game is simple, and in that simplicity we will find meaning together. This is not about me, the reader, this is about every one of you, individually, and as a congregation of intelligent, insightful, and delightful people who share a common interest in learning about yourselves and the world around you, and having a hell of a good time while you do it.

All you have to do for the next couple of minutes is follow the instructions that I read, and see what happens. All you have to do for the next couple of minutes is trust me, and trust the people in the room around you, let go, and have fun. Without you, this is just going to be some jerk up here reading a bunch of stuff, so come on.


First instruction. Everybody who’s not standing, stand up. You can’t play the game if you’re not standing, and if you’re not playing, everyone’s gonna see that you’re not a player, and nobody likes a grumpy greyface. See, I told you this was gonna be simple. Hang on now players, it gets better from here.

Second instruction. Find yourself a partner. We play this game in pairs, so couple up and get yourself into a twosome. Try to make them someone you don’t know, someone you haven’t seen before, someone you don’t know anything about. If you have to move, move, but watch out for other folks. If you know everyone here, congratulations, player. Hook up with someone nearby. If there’s not enough to go around, and you find yourself the odd man out, come on up here and I’ll be your buddy. Everyone all set?

Third instruction. Partners, grab a hold of each other’s right hands. You can just hold them in a simple handshake, or you can go palm-to-palm, tangling your fingers up like one of you is leaving on a train. You can curl them up like you’re about to get into a thumb war – but you’re not – or you can grab each other’s wrists or forearms like you’re young boys playing at being indians. Any way you do it, get comfortable and hang on tight. Don’t let go, because the next part is where it starts to get real.

Fourth instruction. Every player, listen to me. Using your left hand, and while being as respectful of your partner’s body as humanly possible, take something that belongs to them. Nice and slow, take it easy, but just take it. Don’t puss around and grab their bottle of beer or the glass they’ve been drinking out of. Take their glasses off of their face. Take their wallet, take their phone. Take their necklace, take their little black notebook full of scrawled poems and mash notes. If you have to, and you can do it without letting go, take one of their shoes. Any one thing will do, but if it’s something valuable objectively or personally, and you can hold it in your hand, all the better.

Everyone got something? Good. Fifth instruction. Sounds easy, but it might not be. Just stand there for a minute. Look each other in the eye. Don’t look away. Who is this person? They’ve got something of yours. Something that you probably don’t leave the house without. Something that you pat your pocket to make sure you haven’t lost while you’re out having a good time. Something that you might curse and swear and stomp around about if someone walked into your house and walked away with. But there they are, just holding it like it was theirs. Look that person in the eye. Don’t look away. But don’t worry, because we’re all friends here. Or, if we’re not friends, we are at the very least members of a civilized society that do our best not to do each other wrong, at least, not when anyone’s looking, anyway. Look at that person. Do you trust them? Are they gonna take your stuff? Treat it bad? Drop it, break it, mess it up? Look at that person that you’re holding on to, who’s holding on to a piece of you. Who are they? Are they like you, wondering the same thing? What are they going to do next?

Sixth instruction. Let go. Hold your partner with your gaze, don’t break eye contact, but let go of their right hand, and they’ll let go of yours. Keep looking. There they are, standing there with your stuff. You’re not holding on to them any more. Maybe they’re a little bit further away from you than you’d like. Hang on for just a few more seconds. Keep looking at each other. Who is that over there? What are they going to do next?

Seventh instruction. Turn around. Face away from each other. What are you feeling now? You can’t see them, you can’t feel them, you probably can’t hear them. What are they doing? What are you doing? Look down at the thing that you’ve taken from them. Do they want the thing that they took from you more than they don’t want to lose the thing that you took from them? How valuable is it to them? How valuable is it to you? Would they walk away with it? Knowing that you’re right behind them? Knowing that everyone else here can see them? Do you still trust them?

Eighth instruction. Close your eyes. How about now? Just be still for a minute, here. Are they still there? Do you feel like you need to open your eyes? Like you need to turn around and look, just to make sure that they’re still there? Like you want to take a step backwards, and “accidentally” bump into them, to let them know that you’re still there too? Drop all of that. Are you straining to listen to what’s going on in the room around you, to listen for some small sign that your partner hasn’t walked away with your wallet, with your phone, with your shoe? Would they really do that? What would you do if you turned around and they were gone? Forget about that for a minute. Just hang out here with your eyes closed, breathe, and relax. You’re all good. Just a few more seconds.

Ninth instruction. Open your eyes, and turn around. Smile at your partner. Take their right hand again. Just look at each other for a minute. I know you want your stuff back, but just stand there for a minute longer, looking each other in the eye again. That wasn’t so hard, was it? To give up your stuff to a stranger for a few minutes, to let them hold on to it, to turn away and trust that they would treat you like they’d like you to treat them? That wasn’t so hard, was it? To forget about being cool and interesting and unaffected for a few minutes, give up any number of things that you could be doing by yourself, of your own free will, and do a bunch of stuff that some person reading off a bunch of instructions told you to do, for some reason, or for no reason at all? You could be checking your text messages, or pretending to be interested in something on the wall, or getting yourself another drink, but instead, you gave yourself up for a few minutes, and did something new, something unexpected, something that you’d never normally get to do by yourselves, and probably won’t do again any time soon. You let your own stuff go, and gave your time to someone you’ve probably never met before, someone you probably don’t know anything about. Was it worth it?

Tenth instruction. Let go of your partner. Hand them back whatever you took from them. You don’t need to put it back in their pocket or back on their face, but make sure they get it the same way they had it before. Thank them for playing with you. Shake hands again if you feel like it. The game is over, and you all won.

This poem was a game, and it was for every one of you. Have a seat. Thank you.

Jul 3 2010

Game Poem 27: Achilles’ Heel

Achilles’ Heel is a game for two players – one will play a super-powered hero, the other their nemesis. Choose who will be the superhero and who will be the supervillain, and quickly choose names for your new personas – Captain Fantastic and Doctor Midnight, for example. Find ten cards or slips of paper to write on, and fifteen pennies or tokens of some kind. The hero will quickly write down ten things on the slips of paper, numbering them from one to ten. (Obviously, the players may collaborate on the ten things if the hero is having difficulty coming up with them.) The things may be objects, actions, places, emotions, anything. Two of these things will be the only weaknesses that the hero possesses – otherwise, they are completely and totally invulnerable.

Place the ten slips of paper into a hat or a cup or some container where they may be pulled from randomly. Both players will take four pieces of paper from the container, note down the numbers of the items that they pulled, return them, and mix them up well. The things written on the two slips of paper that were not chosen represent the hero’s vulnerabilities. Everything else will be useless as a weapon against the hero, but each player only knows what four of those things are, so the vulnerabilities still remain largely unknown.

Once the setup is complete, the players will engage in a series of five “episodes”, which will culminate in a final battle between the hero and his nemesis. In each episode, the villain will randomly draw two of the slips of paper from the container, and present a brief scenario where the hero must choose between two situations or outcomes that involve the elements drawn. So, for example, if the villain drew “radiation” and “fear of birds”, they might describe a scenario where they must disable a nuclear reactor that the villain has rigged to blow, while the nearby city is being attacked by mutated crows. Alternately, they may combine the two pieces – the reactor may be protected by the giant, twisted birds.

Once the scenario is laid out, the villain will take a number of coins from the supply and divide them between the two elements. In the first episode, they will only take one, in the second they will take two, three in the third, four in the fourth, and five in the fifth. So, in the initial episode, one slip of paper will have one token next to it, and the other will have none; in the final episode, they will have zero and five, one and four, or two and three. The hero will then choose one of the situations indicated by one of the slips of paper to attempt to resolve.

If the thing on that paper is one of the ones that either of the players chose during setup, the hero is invulnerable to that thing, and they succeed in saving the day all around! The hero takes the coins from that item, and the villain takes the coins from the other. The superhero may now quickly describe exactly how they thwarted their arch enemy’s diabolical plans. For the purposes of narration, assume that the hero has whatever powers necessary to do what needs to be done – flight, super strength, laser eyes, telekinesis, whatever. The day is saved!

If, however, neither player has the chosen element noted down, the villain has discovered one of the hero’s weaknesses, and the hero fails to foil their evil deeds! The villain takes all the tokens from both pieces of paper, and narrates how they used the hero’s vulnerability against them, incapacitating them long enough to execute their nefarious plan – this time! The hero is not completely defeated, though, and will return in top condition to fight the forces of darkness once again in the next episode…

After all five rounds have run their course, both players will have a number of coins in front of them. There will be one final episode that will decide the fate of the two mortal enemies once and for all. Decide together how and where this ultimate battle between good and evil will take place, and then, starting with the hero, each player will put forward one token and narrate an action, either telling how they attack the other player or defend themselves or react to the last action. Eventually, one player will run out of tokens – that player will be defeated, and the victor will describe how they put an end to their adversary for good. Will Captain Fantastic stop his fearsome foe’s fiendish machinations for all time, or will Doctor Midnight extend his shadow across the entire world? Only you can decide!