John Tynes is a genius. He really is. I realized this a while ago, when I reviewed games like Delta Green and Unknown Armies, or supplements like The Zone and Instrument of Precision.
I was going to review Puppetland when I did the rest of the gaming material he has up on his excellent site, Revland, but I thought I should wait until I purchased and read the somewhat recently released printed copy, since it may have changed a little bit. Indeed it had, polished up a little, illustrated and bound up with the tiny game Powerkill in one of those "flip the book over to read the other game" format I remember from when I was a boy reading cheap science fiction novels that were sometimes packaged 2-in-1.
Puppetland is a strange game, a story of surreal innocence and corruption at the same time. It is a fairy tale about puppets, the symbol of childhood innocence, forced into adulthood as they must fight to restore peace and balance to a work gone mad when Punch slew the Maker, taking his skin as a mask and as raw material to form his minions.
Backed up by excellent illustrations and a very simple system (which is to say, almost no system), the game really seems to manage to pull of its goals of really surreal telling of a children's story better than I would have thought possible. That may be what amazes me the most about Puppetland. It is one of the few games that clearly accomplishes what it set out to do. It makes you laugh, cry and shiver, it's just so damn creepy.
The original web files are still available at http://www.john.tynes.com/rl_puppetland.html, although the print version has been polished up and expanded slightly to have greater information on the setting and some further story ideas, and I can't understate just how much good the illustrations do. While the cover is only so-so, the inside is superb.
This is the "other game" in the small booklet, and it is only 3 pages long. A "metagame," Powerkill is designed to slide over any other game system. While the cover image and name made me think that it was some sort of generic LARP rules set, it is in fact more along the lines of psychoanalysis. In Powerkill, each player answers a series of questions, "in character" for whatever game Powerkill is being grafted on top of. After the "normal" game session of the other game, the game master steps in and retells the session in terms of hallucinations and insanity. The characters did not fight demons in a dungeon, they murdered innocents in some tenement building. "So what's the point of Powerkill?" you ask? To point out that nearly all of our great role-playing heroes would be considered grotesque monsters with no concept of morality by society at large. Powerkill brings that fact to the surface and forces a look at it. It makes for many startling questions - and a fun game session.
hell, it's dirt-cheap
So there's really no reason not to buy it, and every reason to rush out and fork down the $6 they're charging for it. This is the kind of game people mean when they starting going on and on about how role playing is more than just a bunch of geeks sitting around, drinking soda, eating pizza and wishing they had anything female within a mile. Unlike the other games, however, Puppetland and Powerkill both manage to actually do it, and without any flowery speech and pages after pages of explanation and mention of dreams of communal magic. A valuable asset indeed.
-Derek Guder -Kintaro Oe -kabael the McGuffin Group
Style: 5 (Excellent!)