A couple weeks ago I tried out Marshall Burns' play challenge, Rebellion in the Mushroom Kingdom!
it's a sort of "political realist" take on the world of Mario, with all these grisly realities underlying the bright colors and whimsical creatures, and driven protagonists clashing in a web of motivations. I love this sort of thing (I've spent hours gazing at a Candyland
board silently constructing its politics fer Chrissakes), and couldn't wait to try it. I racked my brain for a good game to try it with--PTA is an obvious choice but I wanted something a bit more layered, Solar System would be nice with appropriate Keys and some nice juicy Mario'd-up Secrets, but takes some work to write up the Crunch and not many (so sad!) of my friends dig Solar System. Best Friends sounded kind of fun with a bit of tweaking, mainly the whole web of Mario hate would be a blast to construct. But I was kinda ambivalent.
Then I hit upon it--my own game, Spectre of the Beast
would be perfect! It's about the choice of Means toward your Ends, and pivotal people's pursuit of their Ambitions have repercussions that ripple throughout the surrounding society. Great! My self-serving decision made, I was ready to play!
I played with my friends Nick, Jake and Tyler, at our local Guardian Games
. I was Mario, and they were Bowser, Kamek and Peach, respectively. Two were Spectre veterans from my playtests (all but Tyler), and we were all Mario nerds. I think Ty had the most Mario cred. I downloaded a Mario font for the headers and printed out Marshall's Mushroom Kingdom writeup; basically the all the Kingdom denizens are ruled by a divine-right Mushroom Monarch, but the proud warrior Koopa Nation is seceding. The Koopa are ruled by brutal evolution, and Bowser is the strongest, most evolved Koopa yet--therefore they all want
him to rule them. Kamek, his advisor, is a secret socialist who is manipulating Bowser to get his political change enacted. Peach was a baby from the human world, Mushroom-raised and royally adopted, but Bowser mistakes her for a highly-evolved Mushroom and thus his only equal, and steals her for his bride. Enter Mario, just a human plumber come up through the pipes, taken in by the heartland peasant Mushrooms and grown giant-sized on their Power Mushrooms--and fed tales of Koopa fanaticism and brutality by Chancellor Toad.
In Spectre you start by broadly detailing cultures for your Champions, and draweing them on the map. In our case the Cultures technically overlap, so we each detailed part of one; I brought a list of Mario locales to draw from (The Super Mario 3 Worlds, having the best names for our purpose), and we ended up with Oceanside (Princess Peach), the Grasslands (Mario), the Pipe Naze (Kamek), and the Dark Land (Bowser). We drew them like so:
In SotB every Champion has an Ambition, several means to pursue it, and the choice to add violence or brutality (The Sword) to a roll in any conflict. The Ambitions, riffing off Marshall's basic writeups, were:Bowser:
Secure Koopa IndependenceKamek:
Achieve Equality among the KoopaPeach:
Bring Advancement to the Savages
Rescue the Princess
We played a game that embraced both the silly and the deadly earnest, equally and fully, not in compromise. Mario a-talked-a-like-a-this-a, but he slaughtered the uprising Goombahs (a slave-labor class of mushroom) and their Koopa backers in a brutal rage when he saw the village b urn and heard the death-crise of the little Mushroom bambinos. Bowser stomped around Peach's quarters acting the tyrannical but cajoling suitor--then ravenously consumed the Koopa-disguised Yoshi spy Peach was trying to smuggle out of the castle to Mario. Kamek was a nasally little poindexter, but cruelly tortured the Princess behind Bowser's back for his own ends, and cowed Bowser's son with a Bullet Bill aimed to his head. The other Mario brother made a brief appearance as an NPC, standing up to Bowser's troops in the heartland while Mario made his way via pipe to the castle, with a bright "Never fear, Luigi is here!"--before being torn limb from limb at Bowser's behest. And after cementing his own Kingdom, Bowser held the Grand Kart Race at his parade ground to celebrate, with Mario entering in disguise--wearing the shell and skin of the hammer brother he'd killed.
The basic structure of Spectre of the Beast is: everyone plays a scene in turn for their Champion, with antagonism provided by the player on your left, Shock:-style. There's a single conflict roll per scene for the Champion's immediate goal, which nets points toward winning the whole Ambition. For a one-shot the target is 4, which has a slim chance of resolving in a single scene. Meanwhile you've got Means dice to roll, and you can add The Sword to them for a big advantage; inciting a riot might be Speech plus Sword, fighting a military battle might be Labor plus Sword, devising a cunning ploy for assassination might be Craft plus Sword. Sword helps a lot, but also adds the chance of rolling atrocities on those dice, causing horrible repercussions from your actions (civilian casualties, mutilations, terrible trauma). there are also positive effects from your non-Sword dice; all these "extra" results ripple out to the world around you, generating points in various cultural pools, including the Spectre of violence. Once all Ambitions are resulved, we figure out from those Pools how the events of play affected the Cultures, and ultimately the World.
So: Bowser achieved his ambition of Koopa independence (Luigi was his last piece of resistance) pretty handily, while Kamek achieved his through consolidation of power behind the Koopa King's back. Jake made a modification to Kamek's Agenda in the final scene: "Equalty = Power for Kamek." The weakest of the Koopa had come into his own. Peach lost her Ambition, and simply gave up on reasoning with these benighted animals. Mario achieved his ambition, killing Bowser and returning the Mushroom heir to her palatial home.
Once we plotted out the cultural ramifications, the results were thus: the Koopa are indeed independent, but lack power as a nation, being mostly forced down into the pipe system to dream of rising up one day and conquering the Mushrooms. Peach starts a massive public works program that pits the whole countryside with pipes, and consolidates social services and health care under a vast nanny state, controlling her subjects lives with a benign, engloved hand. Mario slips into aimless despondency as he sees the Kingdom he fought to save becoming a bland, bureaucratic nightmare. The end.