This is the one hundred third entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 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.
Our next random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has traveled here from a parallel world. It’s MELWAFF – My Exciting Life With a Fantasy Foreigner! by Julian Kay, and its tagline in the bundle reads:
A heartwarming, humorous tabletop storygame where fantasy collides with …
That’s right, your heart is about to get warmed. Whether you want it to or not.
My Exciting Life With a Fantasy Foriegner!, which clearly prefers to be named via its acronym MELWAFF, is a tabletop storygame, as the tagline says. This makes it quite similar to a tabletop role-playing game, except that the emphasis is shifted towards telling collaborative stories together, rather than playing through situations using dice-based mechanics or other sets of rules. All of the mechanical aspects of MELWAFF are there to guide storytelling, by offering prompts or instilling twists, and character progression comes in the form of progress towards one’s goals or dreams, rather than an increase in prowess. MELWAFF does have one important similarity to tabletop role-playing games, however, which is that it requires several people to play, ideally 4-8. This means that, like many of the role-playing games that have appeared so far in this series, I can’t actually play MELWAFF, and can only give you my impressions after reading through the book.
MELWAFF is clearly inspired by anime — it was the winner of the 2019 Okashicon x NinjaHELL! Productions Anime RPG Design Contest, in fact — and each play session is set up as an episode in a longer narrative. The premise is that after the semi-recent discovery of a parallel world called Epika, full of fantasy tropes like wizards, dragons, goblins, and magical spirits, some denizens from Epika decided to immigrate to our world. These immigrants are “compressed” into mostly human form and now live as regular citizens, working jobs and socializing in their communities, with occasional oversight from a governmental regulatory bureau that makes sure immigrants from Epika don’t cause too much supernatural trouble. Each player creates a character, which must include at least one Earth and one Epika native, as well as a Bureau Aide who takes on a role similar to a traditional GM. The Bureau Aide is not the one telling the story, however, they’re more of a referee and guide who encourages the other players to tell the story together.
I’m not an anime expert, but I’ve seen enough to know that MELWAFF is going for a certain comedic style of anime, where the mundane and the fantastical meet and good-natured hijinks ensue (Julian Kay specifically cites Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid and The Devil Is a Part-Timer! as inspirations). This is reinforced by the system for character creation, which is very open ended. Every character must have a role, which describes their job (or character class, if coming from Epika) and a dream that they want to achieve in their lifetime. On top of that, they have two shorter term goals, three likes or dislikes, and a set of qualities that further describe them (certain abilities, skills, or character flaws). There are some examples given for each of these character aspects, but players are free to be creative and make up their own. Once everyone has a basic character ready, a simple system is used to create common ground between different members of the group, helping to establish everyone’s relationships at the start of the game. The Bureau Aide also gives each character a third goal, designed to stimulate interesting stories.
I find the actual process of play intriguing. Players use a tarot deck, or can print the specially designed tarot deck included with the game if they prefer. This is divided into a separate Earth deck and Epika deck, which characters from those worlds will use, plus a Fate deck which the Aide will use. Each player draws a hand of cards which they will use during play, including for determining which character will be the focus of the next episode. Players who don’t want to heft too much storytelling burden can bid low and let others take the spotlight, but since it’s ultimately determined by cards, no one player can continuously dominate the story. Besides, even though one player will be the focus, everyone else has plenty of chances to contribute. Each episode has three acts, and is broadly centered around the star character working towards their dream or one of their goals. But during each act, players will take turns declaring scenes of different types, picking other characters to be in the spotlight, and otherwise participating in the story. By doing so, players will have a chance to trade cards with each other, which is important because players will need cards from both the Earth and Epika decks in order to work towards their dreams and goals at the end.
Between acts, the Bureau Aide employs their Fate deck to spin the story in different ways. Before Act 2 starts, a Fate card is used to introduce a Twist, which tends to be some extra challenge or difficulty that interferes with the main character’s plans. Before Act 3 starts, another Fate card instead adds a Hope, which can target any player except the central character (Aide’s choice) and tends to be a positive boon that can both help that character and perhaps also the wider story. These are interesting because each card in the deck has a predetermined Twist or Hope effect, and the Aide only has a limited hand of cards to choose from, so the story may go in directions that even the Aide didn’t anticipate. There’s room within these prompts to improvise and fit things into the ongoing story, but things are unlikely to ever go according to plan.
After the three acts have concluded, there’s an outro in which each character can see if they’ve made progress towards their dreams or goals. The Aide draws Fate cards and deals them, face down, to each player. Players may then play pairs of cards — always one Earth card paired with one Epika card — and then flip over their Fate card to see if they’ve managed to beat the challenge level of their Fate card. If so, they gain achievements that count towards their dream or goal. If not, they instead gain a bonus that will help them out in the next episode. Since the Aide chooses which Fate card to deal to which player, they have some control over how difficult each character’s test will be, which will presumably be appropriate given how the story turned out. This seems like a really nice system, that lets everyone make progress regardless of whether they were the central character for that episode, and even “failure” comes with a boost for next time. I also like that progress is gradual. Goals can be accomplished with three achievements, but dreams take a whopping ten, and therefore will require many episodes to reach. But reaching one’s goals or dreams come with big bonuses that can adjust a character’s traits, pre-draw some cards for next session, or even permanently alter the decks or create an entirely new character who can start participating in episodes.
This whole system is one of the more novel ones I’ve seen so far, although Julian Kay does cite several other games as inspirations, including Hillfolk and Golden Sky Stories. As I’m unfamiliar with those, however, it’s difficult for me to judge how the game would work in practice. Especially because I’m very much not the target audience, being neither a big anime fan nor someone adept at improvisational storytelling and acting. But there are a lot of things about the system that sound cool to me. Since success requires holding both Earth and Epika cards, direct interaction between characters from the two worlds is central. Yet no one is ever really put in conflict. If one player declares a scene that causes trouble for another player, and does so successfully, they get to give one of their cards to the sufferer which will help them out at the end. The same goes for other types of scenes. Since everything is based on hands of cards, players have some ability to steer events and control the story but will sometimes just be out of luck, which is something the whole group will understand. And I really like how character progress is all about working towards things that you want, with a little help from your friends.
So while MELWAFF is not really aimed at me, I think it could be a lot of fun for the right group. If you and your friends enjoy improvising stories together, especially ones that involve heartwarming hijinks, MELWAFF is worth a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $2.95.
That’s 102 down, and only 1639 to go!