Is it even possible for Meguey Baker to do something that isn’t awesome and inspiring?

I’ve talked in other places about my awe for her game 1001 Nights, one of the most advanced and engaging systems for storytelling gaming I have ever seen; in that game, you play characters who then play other characters as they tell stories to embarrass or exalt one another. A fantastic combination of immersive storytelling and interesting metagame mechanics ensure that players have almost complete narrative freedom at the same time that they have specific, concrete goals. The game goes out of its way to make players think about how identities shift and change–and about how those changes can have political repercussions both great and small.

I’m also a big fan of Psi*Run, a great game with a neat mechanic that allows for players to fill in the information about the other PCs’ backgrounds. As each amnesiac PC discovers something about his own background, other players at the table fill in missing details. A unique dice mechanic allows each player to decide what actions are most important to him during a given scene and allocate the best dice to the things that matter most at that particular moment; players can consult and discuss how best to distribute dice. Both game world and mechanic emphasize group cooperation as the PCs scramble to get away from the mysterious Chasers who want to recapture them because of their psychic powers.

This week, though, I was rendered speechless by Baker’s clever Google+ RPG Doomed Pilgrim, which I happened to catch during a few minutes of downtime at work on Monday. It’s an odd game–in fact, I’m not exactly sure it should be called an RPG at all–or rather, you play such an odd role that it feels like no other RPG you’ve ever played. In Doomed Pilgrim, the GM takes on the persona of the pilgrim, trying to get from an unspecified place in the desert to the Temple of No Gods across the dangerous Sundered Lands. As the pilgrim journeys, players take on the role of the landscape. Their goal? To kill the doomed pilgrim before he reaches the Temple. It sounds easy enough, right? Just hit the pilgrim with a rockslide, and you’re done. The catch, though, is that players can only answer the questions that the pilgrim asks; they may answer in any way they see fit, but the pilgrim can ask questions that make it tricky for the players to kill him. Baker ran the game in a Google+ thread, and she took the first (appropriate, non-disruptive) answer to each question to forward the plot. We managed to kill the poor Pilgrim pretty quickly, although I missed his demise, since I actually had to go work while at work. (The nerve!) While I wouldn’t necessarily have found the rules to Doomed Pilgrim enticing if I had read them, the experience was great; watching the story spin out in unexpected directions under the hands of so many different storytellers made the adventure exciting, and yet the story held together well because we had to answer the pilgrim’s carefully-crafted questions. (You can see a transcript of that game here.)

I am always astounded by the tidy relationship between rules and intent in Baker’s games. Certainly many RPGs try to encourage a kind of synergy between mechanic and experience, but hers do a wonderful job of encouraging a broad range of play styles, each of which relates to the unique setting of the game. Many game designer often re-theme the same game, but each time I read a new game by Baker, her innovation and ingenuity surprises me. Under her guidance, even the six simple rules of Doomed Pilgrim make great storytelling magic happen. If you’re curious, head over to Night Sky Games and check out the selection, and be on the lookout on Twitter for upcoming #DoomedPilgrim games!

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