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Ghost Review: Puppetland – A Storytelling Game with Strings in a Grim World of Make-Believe

Created by John Scott Tynes

Ghost Writer: Christopher Bishop

I was completely unsure what to expect when I chose Puppetland for review.  Part of the fun in reviewing games is sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone and trying new things you would normally pass by.  I recall seeing the Puppetland Kickstarter come about during the 2014 year, but at the time I was distracted with real life so it never got more than a cursory glance.  However, when it popped up for review, this time I decided to not let the opportunity pass me by again.  I was completely unprepared for what Puppetland would introduce into my life when I opened it for the first time.

So just what is Puppetland?

Puppetland is a storytelling game that is extremely rules light.  In the interest of not giving away the entire theme, players take on the role of puppets living within a magical place called Puppetland.  Puppetland was the creation of a man known only as The Maker, whom when the modern world slowly abandoned the simple pleasures of puppet shows and performances, took it upon himself to build his little creations a home that they could enjoy for all time.  Puppets up to this point had always been loving, friendly creations that lived their daily lives doing puppet like versions of daily activities we humans go through.  They make food, even though they cannot eat it.  They act out plays for their own amusement and essentially live existences that are parodies of real life.

All is well in Puppetland until one day one of the maker’s creations turns on him.  I will give a fair warning here.  I picked up this review thinking it would be a sort of innocent fun kind of game.  I was completely mistaken, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Puppetland is all about fusing the innocence of a child’s mind hearing a story acted out for them with a compounding American Horror Story worthy sense of dread and macabre that just fairly oozes from every encounter.  On its face, Puppetland was meant as a place of innocence, however, the evil Punch has warped and twisted it into a disturbing nightmare infused image of its former peaceful state.

Nutcrackers walk the lands, hunting for innocent puppets that do not appear to be having fun, and dissecting, tearing, or simply bludgeoning them into submission…that is unless they just outright kill them.  The Maker is no more, beaten to death by Punch and his mallet, his very flesh warped into evil creations by Punch in his maniacal marionette plot to not only rule Puppetland but to create puppets to his liking, the same way the maker created life in the puppets he lovingly crafted.  Punch does nothing for reasons of love, instead relishing fear, pain, and suffering that he inflicts on his subjects.  Oh ya, Punch is a marionette for whom Megalomaniacal tendencies are the rule and not the exception.

Simply put, Punch is a very angry little marionette, who only seems to have two emotions: anger and sick and twisted humor.  He proclaims himself king of Puppetland, but not before his wife, Judy, manages to run away with a few other puppets to establish a safe haven away from Punch and his oppressive regime.  The players are puppets born into this world, who are trying to help in overthrowing Punch and restoring normal order once again to Puppetland.

So is it a roleplaying game?

Puppetland is a storytelling, narrative style game.  It is very ruled light with only 3 major rules governing action.  All gameplay takes place in the space of a real-world hour.  This does not mean, in the imaginary land the story takes place in that hour, days or even months may transpire in the story, but in the real world once 60 minutes have passed by if the players have not successfully foiled or disrupted Punch’s plans, or completed their objective…they lose.  Unlike other games, losing does not mean your character dies necessarily—although it certainly can mean that depending on the story. But when you make your puppet you draw them in a small window with transparent puzzle pieces.  Every time something bad happens to your character that they cannot overcome, or if they do something that violates their puppet types rules, they are forced to shade in a puzzle piece.  Once all puzzle pieces are shaded in, the puppet has effectively died.

Additionally, the next rule enforces roleplay.  What you say at the table is what your puppet says.  Period.  No exceptions.  The one pervading thought process behind Puppetland is once you sit down to play for that hour, you are always in play with no breaks.  There is also a very strong emphasis on how you roleplay.  If the Puppetmaster says “You run as fast as your finger puppet legs will carry you down the long dark hall, which abruptly comes to an end as you turn the corner.  The sound of clacking Nutcracker legs draws closer as you realize you are at a dead end.”  The typical D&D response would be to ask for more information regarding the dead end and what you see around you. That does not work in Puppetland however.  The players are actors, acting their role out for an invisible audience.  Therefore they must act out even their thoughts.  So, in this case, the actors would be expected to respond like this “Oh my, whatever shall I do, Sally says grabbing her yarn like hair in her small wooden hands.  I know! I shall take a few strands of my hair and knit a rope which I will throw over the top of the wall and climb down to safety on the other side!”  All actions must be spoken as dialogue the same way a puppeteer would express thoughts to a group of children watching a puppet show.

The final rule is that stories change as they are being told, and thus Puppetmasters must be flexible in understanding the story they start out telling may change as the actors react to it.  The actors are creating all the dialogue, and the interactions they create may very well change the whole outcome.  Later in the book, it addresses how a Puppetmaster should adjudicate but it essentially comes down to if they roleplay well and it is not blatant power gaming, then it works for the story.  I can say in play this is harder than one might expect it to be because roleplaying gamers are used to problem-solving based on what is written on their character sheet or what has been described in their environment.  Puppetland requires building up your abstract thinking skills.

You said its a roleplaying game…do we get to make characters?

Absolutely!  In fact, there are 4 different types of puppets you can make.  Finger Puppets, Hand Puppets, Shadow Puppets, and Marionettes.  Initially, a player chooses one of these four types to make their puppet from.  As there is no dice rolling involved instead the game uses descriptors that fit under: What the puppet is (physical characteristics), What the puppet can do (actions they have available to them and how they interact physically with the world) and finally, What the puppet cannot do (their physical deficiencies or moral weaknesses).

After the player picks the kind of puppet they wish to play and copies down each puppet type’s inherent flaws and strengths, they then get to add 3 additional items to each one of the 3 list categories.  So for the “Is” category you could put “is very snarky, quite humble, and skinnier than normal”.  Things you choose under the “is” category have to be attributes, not specific actions.  So you could say the puppet “is clever” but you could not say the puppet “is good at being clever” because that infers being clever is an action the puppet takes not an attribute they possess.

Players then pick out three things their characters “Can do” and finally three things their character “Cannot do”.  Since this is free form roleplaying, this list serves as the only hard barriers besides the 3 golden rules of the game.

Your Character sheet will look something like this:

I will just go right on ahead and apologize for my handwriting.  I tremor at times so it often looks like a Walrus got a hold of a pencil and decided to attempt human writing.  To translate Chris scrawl into human terms:

My shadow puppet is: Funny, Sometimes Melancholy, Well Spoken (think Robin Williams)

My shadow puppet canThrow his voice, Imitate Punches voice, See in the dark

My shadow puppet cannotSwim, Climb trees, Tolerate loud noises

Shadowpuppets are 3 puzzle pieces high.

Once all the puppets are made, the Puppetmaster begins the hour and the storytelling starts.  In our adventure, we were tasked with trying to make a distraction so that Judy was able to sneak a group of small finger puppet children to the lake of milk and cookies before Punch’s nutcracker squad could locate them and kill them.  My shadow puppet distracted the nutcrackers by making Punch’s voice command them to do very simple things.  I could only mimic up to three words the Puppetmaster said so my subterfuge had to be pretty simple.  The finger puppetlings were able to escape safely, but not without our handy handpuppet losing an arm to their savage attack.  All in all, we only had one player out of four lose a puzzle piece.

If a player is injured in the game or has something bad happen to them, it can cost them a puzzle piece on their character picture.  When this happens the player shades the puzzle piece in and for any following games the puppet is one step closer to death.  If all the pieces get filled in, the puppet now knows it is going to die, so the Puppetmaster and player in question are encouraged to work together to make the death dramatic and fun for all.

If a player is injured during a story, at the end of their story, regardless if the players win or lose the puppet will wake up in their bed at the start of the next story, whole and in one piece, even if they lost an appendage.  Death only comes when all the puzzle pieces have been filled in.

The book comes with 15 scenarios plus one starter scenario, all of varying length and challenge.  We chose to make up our own for fun so as not to waste any of the pre-generated ones for a Halloween game we intend to play.

Is it worth the price?

You can find Puppetland in multiple different ways.  You can go to the author’s website and download the free version.  It is pretty low thrills and certainly nowhere as graphic or pretty as the hardbound landscape sized version the Kickstarter created but the rules are simple enough that if you just want to try it out before hunting for the dead tree version that is an option.  The original hard copy version was first published in the Arcane magazine and later by Hogshead games.  You can find copies of the Hogshead version on Amazon for around $24.00 and the Kickstarter version released in 2014 goes for about $35.00.

The book is in landscape format which does make it an odd size for sitting on your shelves.  But for a game that stands out as dramatically as Puppetland, that somehow seems appropriate.  The version I reviewed was the Kickstarter version and it is a gorgeous product from cover to cover.  The art style manages to convey the theme of Puppetland which is macabre innocence.  I found myself being drawn into the story despite my initial thoughts of “this is a kids game”, and quickly backtracked on the whole “for kids” thought process.  This game is definitely not for young kids, mainly due to how disturbing a lot of the stories are.  In fact, in a completely honest admission, after reading about half of the book, I was unpleasantly the victim of a pretty gory nightmare of Punch, with the tattered flesh of the maker strewn across his face chasing me with  gore slicked mallet across a dark landscape, things grabbing for me at every turn while he screamed to his minions to stop me in a screeching maniacal high-pitched voice.

For some, having nightmares from a book would be enough to make them turn back, but Mama Bishop’s boy is just not that bright I reckon, so I plunged on to finish reading the book that had so gotten to me.  I will be the first to admit, I have never been a big proponent of free-form roleplaying.  The few experiences I had with it were pretty terrible, so I was hesitant to think this style of loose narrative would not be fun.  I was wrong; boy, I bet my wife would like to take a photo of that statement.  I know my players were very mixed in their take on it, some loving it, others feeling very uncomfortable.  Needless to say, all were interested in trying it for fun on Halloween regardless of their affection for it.  This is the kind of game where putting candles out in place of electric lights and turning off the cell phones to create a dark environment is perfect.  Since no one has to reference any hard rules, no real concern for eye strain needs to be worried about.

The author puts many personal touches to this product that for me at least put it over the top.  His anecdotes are both spot on for the theme and really help to sell the book as well.  You get a better understanding of just how hard his imagination worked to create this truly unique idea.  I would liken it to Gygax and Arneson relating their inspirations on creating Dungeons and Dragons and in this day and age that kind of abstract thinking turned solid is getting to be rare, as we instead seek to refine products rather than create new ones.

If you want a creepy good time that can fit within an hour, put aside the dice and give Puppetland a try. Just prepare yourself to be a little weirded out by the end!

Until next time,
Keep rolling them bones (or don’t in this case)

Chris

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