Puppetland is "a storytelling game with strings in a grim world of make-believe." It originally appeared in Issue 16 of the British games magazine Arcane, and you can also find it on Tynes' website, but the published version is considerably expanded, not just with new and evocative art but with lots of new game material. It's a game which is at once childlike and innocent and dark and gloomy. Unlike many other games relating to childhood, Puppetland does not assume a single moral - the way the moral of the story develops is very much up to the participants.
In Puppetland, players take on the parts of puppets, trapped under the brutal dictatorship of the villainous Punch. The objective of the game is for the puppets to flee the tyrant's evil clutches, link up with Judy's resistance movement, and somehow break Punch's stranglehold on Puppetland. The game therefore has a built-in campaign structure and a definite objective, which is definitely one way to make a game this small "complete." The narrow scope of the Puppetland story means that pretty much all relevant details can be covered in this small booklet.
Puppetland operates around three rules. They are:
1. An hour is golden, but it is not an hour. This means that each session of Puppetland may last no more than one hour of real time. Any amount of game time may pass during this hour of real time, but at the end of the hour the session stops and the puppets return to their beds.
2. What you say is what you say. Each one-hour session of Puppetland is a highly immersive experience. No player (called an "actor") may say anything out of character while seated, not even to describe his or her puppet's actions. Thus, if a player wanted her puppet to climb up a ladder and through an open window, she would say (in character) "I think I shall climb up this ladder and see if I can get in through the window." Puppets really do talk like that, even if there's no one there. Actors may not ask questions of the Puppetmaster (the GM). Instead, their puppets simply gaze around in confusion, wishing that things were clearer. This makes the most sense if, as the game suggests, you assume that somewhere, everything said around the table is being heard by an audience, which brings us to rule three.
3. The tale grows in the telling, and is being told to someone not present. This means that when the Puppetmaster speaks, he or she speaks as a narrator, describing the events of the puppet show to the audinece - not as a referee describing the events of the puppet show to the players. In a normal RPG, the GM might say "OK, guys, you see the door come crashing down. Nutcrackers come pouring in to attack you." In Puppetland, the puppetmaster would say "with a crash, the door came flying in - and there amidst the wreckage were the nutcrackers!"
Character creation is handled in a very simple and elegant way. Puppets are divided into different types depending on whether they are finger puppets, hand puppets, marionettes, or shadow puppets. Each puppet has different capabilities and limitations, which are expressed in three ways. First, each puppet has a list of what it is - for example, "tall and thin, light, quick, and weak." The next entry is a list of what it can do - for example, "move quickly, dodge things thrown at it by turning sideways," etc. Lastly, the puppet has a list of things it cannot do, for example "kick, grab, or throw things heavier than a piece of paper." All these entries, by the way, are for a shadow puppet.
In order to customize his or her character, the player then adds three things to each list, including things the puppet can not do. Obviously, this is a little open to abuse of the "my puppet can't fly" variety (no puppet can fly - well, except one...), but what kind of sad creature would min-max in a game about puppets? Each actor draws a life-size picture of his or her puppet on a jigsaw puzzle (provided on the character sheet, or you can get them at art supply stores for a few quarters). Every time the puppet does something the character sheet says it can't, and every time the puppet takes damage, a piece is taken away. When all the pieces are gone, the puppet is doomed.
And that's it. Those are all the rules. By this point we're about nine pages into the rules, counting the introduction, which contains a good deal of background material. From here on out, we get a useful section on puppetmastering, descriptions of NPC puppets, a guide to the important parts of the world, and a section on what kind of tales to tell in Puppetland. This also includes a well-written discussion of the themes and moods of Puppetland, which you are of course free to ignore. Because this game is so decidedly different from other RPGs, this comes off as much more useful and much less condescending than similar material from White Wolf.
So far, two of the three New Style games have been real winners (remind me to tell you what I thought of Violence one of these long evenings...). Unlike Baron Munchausen, which was basically a comic digression around a party game the rules to which could fit on an index card, Puppetland really is a self-contained roleplaying game. Everything you need for a good dozen or so sessions of Puppetland is here for six bucks, which, assuming you have four people playing, comes out to about a nickel per hour each. By picking a single theme and storyline and sticking to them, Puppetland succeeds where many "real" RPGs fail.
Puppetland's elegance of design creates a game which takes a neglected RPG assumption - that the players and the audience are one and the same - and plays with it, creating a game which is not only an interesting, haunting and funny adventure game about puppets but a clever exploration of the relationship between RPGs and theatre.
The last three pages (or the first three pages, depending which "front cover" you read first) are taken up with a little game called Power Kill. Like Violence, Power Kill is a satire on the hack-and-slash tendencies of roleplaers, but, being a John Tynes design, it spoofs games not by hurling abuse at them but by monkeying with traditional gaming structure. It's a couple of laughs and a couple of disturbing thoughts to round out the package. But it's Puppetland that should be attracting you.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)