This is the ninth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the
1704 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
A story game to tell stories inspired by Arthurian legends
Prepare for maximum chivalry.
The Sword and the Loves is a tabletop game, so, like before, I’m not able to actually play it since I don’t have a group of 3-5 players. Instead I’m offering my thoughts after reading through the book. The game is credited to Antonio Amato, although it seems several others contributed as well, and the original Italian version of the game is included along with the English translation. Amato cites two main inspirations: the chivalric romances by Chrétien de Troyes, and the tabletop game Archipelago III by Matthijs Holter, from which The Sword and the Loves borrows its ruleset. That ruleset is different from anything I’ve encountered before, offering the barest framework for storytelling and asking players to work together to build the setting and narrative. Players take turns to direct and act out scenes pertaining to their characters, as they move towards their character’s destiny, which is determined at the start of the game with the help of the other players. There are archetypes to use as bases for designing characters, with a few prompts for concocting a backstory, but the rest is up to the players. There’s a map, but it’s almost entirely blank, for players to fill with locations of their own devising. There are cards, but they’re used sparingly to create story twists or resolutions. There are no dice, or character attributes, or numbers of any kind.
Instead, there’s a strong emphasis on theme. The book opens with a section titled “Why This is Not a Fantasy Game”, penned by Francesco de Natale. In it, he writes that “we are far from reserving the game to an unlikely circle of scholars,” but I’m not entirely convinced. This section reads like an academic analysis of chivalric literature, filled with vivid descriptions of the deeper meanings embedded within the themes of the genre, and contrasting it with fantasy literature which “distorts any historical setting under the lens of authorial nostalgia.” The major chivalric themes are then enshrined in the rules of the game itself: the five themes of Chivalry, Grim, Love, Nature, and Wondrous are each assigned to a player to “own”. The owner of a theme acts as a sort of arbiter over how their theme is represented throughout the collaborative storytelling, with the ability to veto how a theme is applied and force scenes to restart with a different tone. The author feels strongly about capturing the feel of chavalric literature during play, and leaves little allowance for the silliness that can often permeate tabletop role-playing games. There are several set phrases that players may employ while playing through scenes, such as “Describe that in detail” which prompts a player to elaborate, “harder” which tells a player to avoid ending a scene in a stalemate, or “help” which asks other players to assist in the storytelling. My favorite is “that may not be so easy”, which can only be used once per scene, and results in the drawing of a resolution card that alters the way the action proceeds. For example, a resolution card may indicate that the character’s attempt fails, but ends up helping another character. Or it could say that the attempt succeeds, and something else that’s completely unrelated is also a big success.
Interestingly, when these cards are drawn, they are given to other players to interpret, often according to the specific theme(s) they own. This is just one way in which The Sword and the Loves draws other players into each scene. When creating characters, players draw Fate cards as prompts for each character’s story. These cards offer a core idea, but it’s up to players to interpret them in terms of a specific story relating to each character, and each player interprets Fate cards for the other players’ characters. Players then choose a Fate for their character out of those written out by the other players, with discussions about details and the appropriate usage of the themes encouraged. During play, while the player whose turn it is will always be the star of their scene, the players to the left and right of them at the table are given specific roles in helping the scene along, and may play as minor characters in the scene to do so. One neighboring player is the Guide, responsible for keeping the focus of the scene on the active character, while the other is the Deceiver, responsible for tempting the active character and making the scene as dramatic as possible. Each character archetype comes with certain things that grant them “hopefulness” and “bleakness”, helpful for the Guide and Deceiver to use during scenes to influence the character. I suspect the Deceiver may be the one using “that may not be so easy” most often.
It’s difficult to judge how all of this works in practice without playing it myself, or at least watching another group do so. With such a strong emphasis on storytelling, it seems that The Sword and the Loves relies on a good group of players who are enthusiastic about Arthurian storytelling, are creative and willing to help others out in their scenes, and are collectively committed to adhering to theme. Personally, I worry I’d not be creative enough or confident enough of an actor to be a good player, but maybe all I’d need is an encouraging group to get me going. The author and his contributors are clearly passionate about the source material, and hope the game may help spread interest in the genre of chivalric romances, and this enthusiasm shines through any stringent policing of theme. I appreciated the note on gender representation in the book, in which Antonio Amato explains his attempts to improve the characterization of female figures especially, since they are often protrayed in a negative light in the source literature. One of the archetypes, the Wandering Damsel, is designed to reflect a character responding to prejudices of the time, while other female archetypes find their own power and agency from within the societal structure.
If you like making up stories with friends, and are interested in the Arthurian legends or chivalric romance in general, The Sword and the Loves is definitely worth a look. If you didn’t pick it up in the bundle, it’s available for a minimum price of $5 from itch.io.
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