Playtest of Giants

This is an old essay that never got posted. I’ve edited it slightly to fix the context and otherwise cleaned it up and polished it a bit.


Made it to Forge Midwest 2010, and had a delightful time. The first game of the day was giving Giants a run-through–something I’ve been trying to arrange to do since I got the ashcan at Gen Con 07.

Short, short version: the organization is horrible, and we’re not sold on having to devote an entire scene to feasting/healing, but otherwise I think the game is actually “all there”. It’s too bad that it appears to be abandoned.

We got to Forge Midwest a little after 9am on Saturday, and only a few people were there and up, so far. A handful more showed up within the next half hour, and a group of them started a game of Drifter’s Escape while another pair played S/Lay with Me. Which left 3 of us unoccupied, with a table full of games. After much hemming and hawing, with everyone sorta deferring to others’ preferences, I decided to pick something, because otherwise it wasn’t going to happen. So, I picked Giants, which I had picked up in ashcan form at Gen Con 07, and been wanting to play ever since. Dan and Clyde joined me, and a little later, as we were getting started, so did Buzz.

The basic premise of the game is that you play the titular giants, and the focus of the play is supposed to be on their interactions with their communities, as well as each other. It’s a highly cooperative game, so PCs aren’t expected to be enemies — but perhaps rivals. The author’s intent on this front is not 100% clear from the ashcan. Character creation was definitely the highlight of the game for us — I’ll get back to that. Once we got into the game, proper, however, we ran into a crippling flaw, though one easily fixed.

The basic mechanism of play is that, starting with the GM, all the players [GM included] take turns setting a scene, and then playing it through. For the most part, this is straight-forward, with one minor hiccup: it is unclear whether a non-GM player must include her giant in the scene she sets. There are rules for inviting other giants [you earn a “boulder” — hero point] into your scene, and for the most part it seems clear that a player’s own giant is always in their own scene. It also is reasonably clear — though only from inference — that someone may turn down an invitation into a scene (more later on why you might want to). But then we got to the rules for feast scenes, we ran into some confusion. The feasting rules specifically say that a player may invite another player’s giant to a feast, but they imply that this is instead of having their own feast. That is, that only one giant may benefit from a feast in a given scene. And every scene you are in where you aren’t feasting, your hunger increases, so if throwing a feast for another giant not only means your giant can’t partake as well, but also means your giant can’t be absent from the scene, it seems like the game has a powerful disincentive to cooperating, on that point at least.

So, all of this combines to mean that a reasonable fraction of your scenes will need to be feast scenes — and if you suffer any damage during a scene, then healing scenes become equally important. And with the giants each having their own problems, as well as a shared problem, this tends to mean that all of the players will need to regularly include feast, and probably healing, scenes, because nobody else is going to be doing it for them. Indeed, it looks like healing scenes, also, only apply to one giant at a time. Which means that every 3rd or 4th scene that a player stages — and possibly more frequently — will have to be a feast or healing scene. And nothing else can be accomplished during a feast or healing scene–you have to dedicate the whole scene to just that one thing. The good news is that that just entails a quick bit of narration — it needn’t cost much time at the table. But the bad news is that was your turn until it goes around the table again. So, in our game, the perspective from a single player’s POV might be something like:

my scene — someone else’s scene — someone else’s scene — share someone else’s scene — my scene — someone else’s scene — share someone else’s scene — someone else’s scene — feasting scene — [GM-set] my scene — someone else’s scene — someone else’s scene — my scene …

So, you end up participating in, oh, say, half the scenes. And every 4th or so scene, you need a feast scene — so if you participate in more scenes with others, it just means you end up “spending” all of the scenes you set for feasts. It leads to a tradeoff between participation and direction — you can participate more, but then you’ll be more at the whims of others for the plotline, or you can have more control of your personal plotline, but be less involved in the game.

Now, I don’t think this was the author’s intent. It’s pretty clear that community and cooperation are supposed to be central aspects of the game. For starters, part of setting up the game is creating the shared opposition/threat/danger/problem that brings the giants together — and its creation is phrased roughly like that. And there’s the fact that the game rules explicitly state that the giants are meant to not be enemies or opponents. While the game doesn’t say it outright, it seems like the intended feel is somewhere on the spectrum between rivals and competitive colleagues — the giants should have conflicts over limited resources on occasion, but are at the very least reluctant allies, forced together by a common problem. To use an analogy, I think the game is intended to play a little bit like Ars Magica, but instead of interspersing adventures and downtime, it’s interspersing dealing with the common threat with dealing with personal problems within the giant’s community.

So, it’s possible that we simply didn’t get it right. Maybe if we’d fleshed the communities out a bit more before starting, and/or focused on those interactions a bit more, the feast scenes would’ve been more satisfying. But I still don’t think they would’ve been satisfying enough to overcome the inherent “wasted scene” feeling of them. At first, we really played out — well, more narrated — the feast or healing scenes. By the end of the game, it became much more cursory — and at one point we even contemplated just all going around the table for a round of feast scenes, with very cursory explanations (a la “i return to my village for a feast”, “i eat a regiment of my kobolds”). In our discussion after the game, we all agreed that feast scenes needed to somehow take up less of the scene-setting cycle. Perhaps they could be between-scene scenes. Or be incorporated into a “regular” scene. Making group-feasts the norm would seem to require larger changes in the sctructure of the rules.

There are several other minor organizational and consistency issues. How to set initial town scores only appears in an example, rather than being explicit in the rules. We had to guess whether or not the players start with any boulders. Some stats count up, some count down; some measure more of the thing named, while some measure the lack of the thing named.

Finally, I think we were all wondering why there is a designated GM. It seems like the game would flow just fine, maybe even better, if everyone simply shared responsibility for the outside threat. It would require some reworking. Maybe it would require some additional rules to codify the threat’s behavior and/or mandate certain scenes, alongside the feast and “regular” scenes already there. Maybe it wouldn’t be worth the changes–maybe it would add too much complexity and codification to a game that is in part appealing because of the looseness. But I would be interested to know if the author considered and specifically chose to have a GM, or if it was just expected structure? 


Unfortunately, the part that I didn’t write anything about at the time was our characters, so I’m relying on 2-year-old memories here. What I can tell you is that the creation of the characters was definitely the most fun. The rules are very freeform, so anything goes. The one that sticks in my mind was a dragon, whose “town” was the hoards of kobolds that worshipped him, and followed him like a ravenous shadow, carpeting the land like locusts and leaving a swath of decimation wherever he went. Also, they were at least occasionally his food supply–I distinctly remember a feast scene that consisted of a thousand kobolds sacrificing themselves so that the dragon could heal. Unfortunately, that’s all I remember of the characters, other than a vague recollection of a Poseidon-like aquatic giant. I don’t remember anything about the 3rd PC. Nonetheless, the fact that the rules parts of character creation are very loose gave us lots of freedom to come up with what we wanted, and really have fun with it. And, pretty much whatever you want will work with the game. This is a huge point in the favor of the game.

The next part of starting the game is creating the map. You take turns putting geographic features, your giants’ towns, and unaligned towns on the map. Again, like the character creation, there is very little the rules require, so there’s lots of freedom to make the world as mundane or fantastical as you want it to be, and the game will play just fine.

So, in summary, Giants needs work, but it’s a nice little game with real promise. I really like the premise, and the focus on a a sort of cooperative play–and maybe that’s why it needs to have a GM. And, regardless of its flaws, we really enjoyed the setup of the game–which is why I still am talking about it 2 years later. I’d love to see the gameplay brought up to the level of the setup in terms of fun, and that would require restructuring the scene-setting–but that and a little polish might really turn this into a great game.

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