People seem to say this about a lot of games, so why buck the trend, Chronicles of Skin is hard to categorise. Part story-telling game, part card game, part doodling game and more besides. Yet, it is a game. Don't lose sight of that fact. It is important. That said my intention here, whilst trying to give an idea of how it plays, is really to give you a 'feel' for Chronicles of Skin rather than a full outline of the mechanical aspects.
The game part is significant to me, however, and I will try to explain why. To my mind lots of story-telling experiences provide a framework for participants to create a narrative together. At the end everyone can sit back and reflect on their work. The drama of building a story was what appealed in the first place. The telling of the tale, as a group, was what gave us our pleasure and enjoyment. In Chronicles of Skin you can even admire it, as you will have a physical representation to keep.
Most people who play RPGs to “be” characters enjoy this story-telling. They are not competing but co-operating. The story is the prize. If you can answer the question “who won?” then, in a sense, we all lost.
Ultimately, the story is the prize too in Chronicles of Skin. You start the game to write a history of a primitive, magical time. One civilisation, made of two distinct yet unified people, the Iho and the Croen, will fracture and fragment. There will be a tragic story of a land torn apart. Chronicles of Skin's mechanics will ensure that this will happen; it ensures it will be epic.
Yet in Chronicles one player can win. Of course, as stated, I believe that the story you make together is the real goal. Chronicles of Skin, though, is also a game. It is the fact that it is a game that lends it strength and depth. There is an element of competition that adds a tension and a dynamic to the story-making journey. The process is more struggle, more pull and push, than co-operation.
Chronicles is about a civil war. So, the game is a civil war. The players will work together on the story, but at the same time Chronicles compels them to compete, to manipulate, destroy and coerce. Unlike other story games there will be a winner. That winner will have worked through a structure, playing the game, to achieve their victory. When you win though, it is unlikely you will be crowing about it. Around you will be the wreckage of a once great culture which you and your fellow players ripped asunder. Together you will have made a beautiful tragedy. No-one will be free from blame.
Does that sound cool? Exactly.
One of the fascinating things about Chronicles of Skin is that whilst you control and narrate a character within a scene you do not chose their actions. Rather, other players will try to compel you to narrate the actions of the character you speak for. They will want to manoeuvre the collaborative story in a certain direction. You, most likely, will not want the story to head that way, you have you own aims for the narrative, and so you resist. Resistance, however, comes at a cost.
The currency of the game is tokens. I bid tokens to drive you to have your current character act in a certain way. You will be my puppet. This term is used in the game to describe the activity. However, you can counter bid to resist. A random element adds a frisson of doubt and uncertainty. If I win, you get to narrate a dramatic and gripping scene. You've not really lost then, have you? We came to tell a great story after all. I, on the other hand, advance in terms of the game. Ah. Now do you see what makes Chronicles of Skin such a great experience? If you resist I cannot drag the story the way I want, but you have spent valuable currency. Suddenly your options shrink and your vulnerability increases. Was it worth it?
When you are out of tokens you do not have the power to compel others to act. The narrative will start to move in other thematic directions. Directions that serve other players. You need to grab the End Action Card. Even then, others can continue to push the story. So, the game forces you to follow the narrative plans of other players. To conserve your tokens you must succumb to being other players' puppet. A sweet dilemma. If you do submit you gain the narrative rights. You say how your character acts. The surrender, thus, has an upside for those of us who love to tell stories. What's more you save tokens to spend later, making them do your bidding. Therefore the story, and the tension, ebbs and flows.
Finally, the story you make is recorded. It is drawn onto the Skin of the title. It is sketched and doodled as the history unfolds. This is done by the people who tell it, you, the Scribes. You do not need to be artistic; the story told can imbue the most crude images with substance, but if you are you can have a ball! In the end, the tale is preserved. Just like an ancient artefact it will be mysterious and opaque to those who were not “there” when the civil war occurred. Yet to those who made that Chronicle their story will quickly return when they look at the Skin. In all its compelling horror and tragedy.
If this description has whetted your appetite and I hope it has, you probably want to know a little about how Chronicles of Skin works in terms of play. This is not exhaustive. As I said in the introduction, the aim here is to convey the spirit of the game rather than break down the mechanics.
To begin with the Scribes construct the cultures who will be affected by the story. The game does this using a simple card draw. The drawn card shows an image. They are beautifully produced and very evocative of the game setting. Players take turns interpreting the images in whatever way they are inspired and adding this to the flag of one of the cultures. The interpretation of the image also gives an insight into that culture. This process defines an aspect, a rule and a belief of both the Croen and the Iho peoples. Finally there is a unifying, shared character that both Croen and Iho venerate or respect.
As a result of this collaboration, each time you play, the Croen and the Iho will be different. Moved by different beliefs, characterised by different aspects, following different rules. Always the Croen and Iho, but always unique Croens and Ihos. Clever, eh?
Then locations are created and doodled onto the Skin. They are already named, like the tribes, but not defined. Each story the Scribes get to say what the location is. These places are where the key events of the tragic story we are telling happen.
Next we establish a portent of doom for the first of four acts, each called a Story in the game, by using a Glyph of War. Using the Glyph the Scribe outlines what is going to happen in this chapter of the history we are exploring. He or she suggest a tragedy that is about to befall this culture and start the civil war of the Chronicle. Then the game is open to all players to grab either the Puppet or the Event card.
What drives your use of these options is the Theme Card you are pursuing. Each player's is different each story, often contradictory. You could be aiming for Hearts, Swords or Crowns. Love and passion, violence and conflict, power and leadership to be the theme of the current round. Pulling the story your way will gain you more tokens both for future use and as a scoring mechanic in the game.
So, what of the Puppet and Event actions? The Puppet give you a chance to dictate the actions of another player's current character, the Event Card gives you control of anything else in the story world. Then you get to state a reaction from one of the other characters.
Both Puppet and Event reactions are carried out in a similar way. The acting player bids tokens. The target player counter bids, If they want to. Both draw cards to add a further one to three to their token count. If the acting player wins the target must carry out the requested action, or reaction to the Event. The targeted player gets narration rights and describes this outcome. As I said,when you lose in a way you win, as you get to build the story. A clever player might even use this as a set up for a play that they want to make next. Crafty, eh? If the target wins they can avoid the outcome desired by the active player.
Play continues with players taking turns in any order, when inspired to influence the story, until someone grabs the End Action Card. If nobody has a Puppet or Event to play then that finishes that story or part of the greater narrative. When you have done this four time then this Chronicle is complete. It takes two or three hours normally. The fallen Croen and Iho are counted, as are the players' tokens and a winner is declared. That person becomes the Great Scribe and, in a nice touch, gets to sign the Skin and draw the surviving tribe's icon onto the appropriate part of the artefact.
That's Chronicles of Skin. An epic, tragic, story-making game in which a civilisation is torn apart. Role-playing opportunities abound. If you came for the story then you will not have been disappointed but also, you could emerge as the Great Scribe - winner of the game.
Try it. Chronicles of Skin will be like nothing you have experienced before but I bet you, like me, will want to dive into the world of the Croen and Iho again, and again.