This is the one hundred thirty-seventh 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 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.

Another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is staring us down, accompanied by some epic trumpet music. It’s Standoff, by Matthew R.F. Balousek, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

A game about telling ridiculous stories together.

That’s right folks: it’s time to get ridiculous.

Standoff is a tabletop game about collaborative storytelling, with at least two but preferably four to six players. As usual for this series, I’m too lazy to actually find a group of people, so I’ve just read through the rules and written my thoughts on them here. Standoff is not really a tabletop role-playing game, despite what you might suspect, because it’s not about inhabiting specific characters. Instead, everyone collectively makes the characters, and establishes the world and premise of the story, before working together to tell that story, switching between characters as needed and coming up with as many absurd twists and silly surprises as possible. There are no dice or tokens, just index cards. Lots of index cards.

I like the “Lock-or-Change” system for setting everything up. Players take turns verbally offering short story suggestions, called “seeds”, and then pass the index card for seeds to their left. Players who are handed the seed card can either lock the suggested seed, by writing it down and offering a new one, or change it by offering some twist or alteration. Once everyone has locked or the seed card is full of seeds, this part of the setup is complete. A similar process is used to create characters, including the main protagonist and antagonist who will face off across the story. Only names and summaries of characters are done using Lock-or-Change, however; the rest can be done during scenes.

The only prescribed part of Standoff is an overall structure of protagonist versus antagonist. All other characters are loyal to either the protagonist or antagonist (although loyalty can change), and indeed many members of the supporting cast can be created on the fly for specific scenes. The first scene of a game of Standoff always involves the protagonist defeating a minion of the antagonist, and the final scene is always the final showdown in which the protagonist defeats the antagonist once and for all. All scenes in between are created as play proceeds, using a specific conflict as a prompt, and several goals for the scene determined by Lock-or-Change. Playing through a scene happens in two modes, marked by an index card with the word “AND” written on one side and “BUT” on the other side. In “AND” mode, the goal is to move the story forward, so every player can chime in with what happened next: “Yes, and then…!”. When conflicts break out in the scene, players flip the card to the “BUT” side, to describe the action.

This phase seems like the core of Standoff. It’s here where the silly twists and reversals happen. If the players are telling a swords and sorcery type story, an evil minion might leap from his hiding place and swing his blade at our hero. BUT! She uses her cat-like reflexes to block the blade with her mithril bracer, and the blade shatters! BUT! It’s a cursed sword, so now a dark mist envelops our hero, weakening her and slowing her movements. BUT! She calls upon her patron deity for divine assistance, summoning the will to grab the minion and spread the curse to him as well! You get the idea. A cool thing about these scenes is that players are free to decide on these powers or abilities that characters have as they go. When the scene I made up above is finished, players would take the index cards for the two characters and add their special powers. On the hero’s card: cat-like reflexes, mithril bracers, patron deity. On the minion’s card: hides in shadows, cursed sword (now broken).

These improvisational exchanges are the central appeal, and Matthew R.F. Balousek encourages players to get as silly and ridiculous as possible. “Twists, ripostes, counter-feints, and triple-double-crosses” are all recommended. To keep things from going completely off the rails, each scene has one player designated as the “scene wrangler”, who will make sure all the scene goals get met and end things before they drag on too long. Everyone, including the scene wrangler, can grab a character’s card during the scene to inhabit them for a bit, but players are encouraged to switch which characters they’re inhabiting mid-scene as ideas occur to them, or if others want to take over because they’ve just thought of something hilarious.

As long as these absurd conflicts are happening, everything else about the story is fair game. Example seeds, characters and goals are given at the end, in the form of random tables, and they’re all over the place. A story might be set on a secret moon, or 3,959 miles underground. It might take place eighty million years from now, or on laundry day. Villains might be impeccably glamorous, while heroes are awkward, or excellent knitters. Players can choose from these at random if they wish, or simply use them as inspiration for their own stories.

Improvisational storytelling isn’t really my thing, as I’ve probably made clear with the decidedly unimaginative conflict I made up a few paragraphs ago, but I think Standoff could be pretty fun with the right group. I like that it explicitly embraces silliness, because my own (limited) experience playing table-top games showed that things often get quite silly anyway. If coming up with one absurd twist after another with a group of friends sounds fun to you, give Standoff a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $6.29 for the PDF version (which is what’s in the bundle), or $12.40 for a print version in zine format. There are still a few print copies left at the time of writing.

That’s 137 down, and only 1604 to go!