Playtest: Dream Askew

Yesterday I got a chance to play Avery Alder’s Dream Askew (Buried Without Ceremony) for the first time. We tried a playtest of the new edition for which a Kickstarter funding campaign was ending today (you can still pre-order through the page afterwards.) The book is going to contain two takes on the system:

  • Dream Askew proper, where you play members of a queer enclave in a post-apocalypse setting (written by Avery);
  • Dream Apart, where you play inhabitants of a Jewish shtetl in a fantastical-historical Eastern Europe (written by Benjamin Rosenbaum).

Both make me want to play, and I hope to have a chance to try Dream Apart soon. The art looks wonderful for both settings, and amazing contributors have been added through stretch goals. I expect the final result to be a delight.

Preparation

In addition to the playtest materials available on her website, Avery was also kind enough to share a draft of the “How to Play” chapter for our playtest. I love how caring, generous and thoughtful Avery’s writing is. The chapter provides advice for the play environment and behaviours, not just the mechanical aspects. 

The game is inspired by Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games) but is both GM-less and diceless (“No master, no dice.”) It uses prompts and distributes setting authority among the players: in addition to playing a character, you are responsible for one important setting element (e.g., Varied Scarcities, the Digital Realm, the Psychic Maelstrom, etc.), acting as a game-master with limited scope when that element is in play. These elements change hands when certain conditions are met.

We played online so we used a Google Doc to keep track of our choices and information created about the world. We had five players, three of which identified as queer and use they/them/theirs pronouns, and my husband and me who identify as straight and use he/him/his and she/her/hers pronouns respectively. There are six character playbooks and six setting elements to distribute, so everyone had at least some options. We also reversed order of selection between the two so everyone would have fair choice.

We discussed safety issues and what we wanted or didn’t want to see in the setting. We decided we did not want to see Nazis (or any real-world stuff) because we needed a break from the terrifying news cycle; child abuse (specifically sexual, specifically shown in detail) although veiled/offscreen/backstory is okay.) We agreed to avoid defaulting to a Lord of the Flies narrative, all too common in post-apocalypse movies and television series. Finally, we felt that the use of “gangs” as a setting element was fraught with potential racial stereotyping; we chose to interpret gangs as outlying groups, factions, or adversaries who are not in Society Intact; they too are all barely scraping by and their interests may clash with ours.

Player Characters

Here are the characters we created:

The Iris (played by Fish): Tion

  • Gender: Void (they/them) (Effect: lessens the “gender feels” of the people around them.)
  • Color Scheme: Light Grey
  • Look: dead eyes, slim frame, casual wear, a concealed weapon
  • Psychic Gifts: Memory Harvesting, Storm Sheltering
  • The psychic maelstrom told me that it needed me for a higher purpose.
  • Relationships:
    • Weepy trans girl whose past I’m erasing (consensual/requested),
    • Weird-eater that I created (a maelstrom thing)
  • Lure: Whenever someone invites you to use your psychic gifts on them, they gain a token.

The Stitcher (played by Eli): Spook

  • Gender: bigender (no preferred pronouns)
  • Look: Skittish eyes, scarred hands, scrounged up clothing, countless pockets
  • Avoiding emotions, but has relationships to two entities that live in the workshop. The ghost & kid should have needs for Spook to provide. Takes people in to take care of them.
  • Supplies:
    • people bring the weirdest shit,
    • this warehouse of random stuff.
  • Workshop functions: woodworking, hacking (old device jailbreaking, to get them to work w/o internet access)
  • Relationships:
    • A ghost (Ariadne) who haunts the workplace,
    • A void kid (Thanh) who needs my maintenance to stay alive.
    • Also, a rat (Jojo).
  • Lure: Whenever someone comes to you with something precious that needs fixing, they gain a token.

The Tiger (played by Sophie): Domino

(I decided to tackle the issue of stereotyped “gangs” head-on.)

  • Gender: Masc (They/them)
  • Look: masked face, slender arms, flashy acquisitions & velour
  • Group trappings: A safehouse, medical supplies. It was a rundown clinic even before falling off the edge of society (think Planned Parenthood-AIDs clinic combo.)
  • Group flaws:
    • We owe a lot of debts that we can’t pay,
    • Our actions bleed psychic instability into the area
  • Relationships:
    • my poz support crew (people who depended on the clinic),
    • second-in-command who covets the title.
  • Lure: Whenever someone relies on you to solve one of their biggest problems, they gain a token.

The Hawker (played by Ed): Proust

  • Gender: dagger daddy (he/his)
  • Look: friendly face, heavily tattooed hands, vintage formal wear, Signature Color: Red/Crimson
  • Provides: coffee, art, a thriving social scene (Runs “Where The Wilde Things Are”, a coffee shop, has lots of community art, motif has the characters slightly altered to indicate gender in various ways)
  • Currencies: work-trade within the entire community, protection
  • Relationships:
    • wasteland salvager who brings what is needed,
    • ingenue assistant (Rose (clueless → Rose has been a barista here since before the apocalypse and lives nearby. She doesn’t quite grasp the full extent of the apocalypse yet.)
  • Lure: Whenever someone offers you a new gig, or gets hooked on your supply, they gain a token.

The Arrival (played by Peri): Lark

  • Gender: tomboy (any pronouns, doesn’t really “get” gender)
  • Look: sturdy frame, capable hands
  • Attitude: Everything’s fucked, so let’s dance.
  • Wardrobe Styles: hiking gear, shoplifted club clothes
  • How I Knew the Enclave Existed: I used to come out here for the parties
  • Two things you brought with you when you fled: concealed knife, stolen money (whose? why?)
  • Relationships:
    • the gentle soul who invited me to share their bed (tarot card: The Magician)
    • the first person to offer me a stiff drink (tarot card: Strength; someone who carries many burdens easily)
  • Lure: Whenever someone gives you an opportunity to prove yourself to the community, they gain a token.

Our Enclave

Setting Element Choices

  • Varied Scarcities (Sophie). Two things which it desires: Uncomfortable bargains, Scrappy DIY
  • Psychic Maelstrom (Ed). Two things which it desires: Revenge, Fervent intimacy
  • Society Intact (Eli). Two things which it desires:  Self preservation, Technological solution (Reversing some bad thing that happened as a trigger of the apocalypse)
  • Digital Realm (left on table, was played by Sophie the first time it appeared.) Two things which it desires: To reinvent the world in its image, Extended networks
  • Outlying Groups/Factions/Adversaries (Fish). Two things which it desires: Loyalty, safety
  • The Earth Itself (Peri). Two things which it desires: Strange new forms, Trembling awe

Town Map/Community Visual Choices

  • The ocean
  • Recolonized spaces/reclaimed green spaces
  • Train station
    • The beach town at the end of the train line; was once a fishing town, then a vacation destination circa 1900, then an artsy community, then a sort of gentrified commuter city, then once again sheared off the main urban landscape and left to itself and the bohemians who clung to it. (As a Left-Coast dweller, I was thinking of something like a run-down Sausalito.)
    • The ocean rose and flooded some cities; not too far from us, many buildings sticking up out of the water, you can take a boat and break into the 4th floor of a tower to scavenge supplies. Some buildings are sometimes above the tide, and sometimes below.
    • Timing of the tides when you scavenge, symbols of the old town (luxury or children’s room) destroyed/reclaimed by the sea. Tidemarks on the upper part of the wall, glimmers of old glory, furniture is against the side of the wall from the tide, covered in barnacles. Paintings half reclaimed from seawater. Marks on the outside of houses for bodies recovered vs people who should have been there. Also new marks from the enclave. Fisherpeople who live in the upper floors of buildings, with bridges between them. A bank with a vault under water, can only access at low tide.
  • Some visual inspirations:

Things in conflict:

  • Limitless possibilities of queer sex
  • Scarcity Thinking? Food Justice? (We were not quite sure.)
  • Psychic Privacy

We took our time discussing all this, and as a result our setup took two hours and forty-five minutes rather than the expected one hour. That’s okay, though, since we were planning to have more than one episode.

The Story Begins

The setup sequence is designed to ease into scene framing and actual play. The players take turn asking the player to their left (we used written turn order) a question from a list on their playbook. At any point players can choose to continue with scenes inspired by the established fiction rather than ask a playbook question.

The Tablet

We started with Spook the Stitcher (Eli) asking Tion the Iris (Fish): “What broken thing do you have that I could fix?” Fish decided that Tion’s weird-eater familiar had run out of things it was allowed to eat and had been insistingly bringing an old tablet and pointing to it. The tablet didn’t work anymore because it had required an online connection to run its apps, so Tion (followed by the weird-eater) brought it to the reclusive Spook. Since this played right into the Stitcher’s lure, Fish got a token. Ariadne the ghost made a brief appearance for color, then was dismissed from the scene.

This scene would clearly require someone to play the Digital Realm and since no one had claimed it yet, I claimed it for the scene. This is when we got to choose its “desires.”

Spook took a look at the tablet; he was able to briefly turn it on but the battery was empty and it faded back to darkness. Having no token to spend on a strong move to completely and properly repair the device, Spook had a choice of a regular move that would fix or make something, partially or shoddily, or a weak move that would leave it volatile or broken—and earn Spook a token. We really liked the idea of a “volatile” device.

Spook opened it to check its innards, kludged something using a different battery, and got the tablet to work. For sure, it was fixed. Unnoticed by Spook and Tion, the device briefly connected to their home network… and the weird-eater ate something from it.

Using their Memory Harvesting psychic gift, Tion read the feelings of the last person to handle the tablet before the Fall. Edmund portrayed the Maelstrom. Tion sensed both great anger and deep longing; they concluded that there was information on it about a divorce. Then Tion returned the device to the weird-eater.

We ended the scene and noted these two plot hooks in our document, as well as the tokens earned by Tion and Spook.

Bartering for a Book

Next, Proust the Hawker (Edmund) asked Domino the Tiger (me) a question: “Why have I been sizing you up recently?” He specified that he wanted it to be a human connection question, not one about trade. We discussed possibilities and landed on Domino’s personal library: Domino had given Proust a list of books they were looking for, and regularly dropped by the coffee shop to see if there were new books.

That day, Proust silently handed Domino a book containing the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne alongside the usual cup of coffee. Domino immediately became completely absorbed. When they started reading aloud, Proust finished the lines for them. This brought Domino back to reality, to ask what Proust wanted for the book.

Proust’s mode of barter was to ask people to pick a job ad from his “help wanted” billboard for the community and take care of it. (Reminiscent of The Booth at the End.) Domino went to look over the ads; after a moment, Proust pointed to one and said: “This one, I think.”

It was from the Bear clan, whose leader Tawny was getting married to Diesel; they were looking for a cadre of guards to prevent interruptions from rival gangs (the outsider groups/gangs were being played by Fish). Tawny was a rival of Domino’s and the two groups were not on the best of terms. Domino grumbled a little before accepting the deal.

We ended the scene and noted the plot hook.

Recruitment

To frame our third scene, Domino the Tiger (me) asked Spook the Stitcher (Eli): “How did I capture your attention yesterday?” Eli said that Spook had been worrying about a very specific drug needed to keep Thanh the Void kid alive, but was reluctant to leave their workshop to go as “far” as Domino’s clinic.

Fortunately for the recluse Stitcher, Domino stopped by to ask if they had a vehicle to loan for a trip to the Bear clan. It turned out that Spook had nothing on hand that did not seem too dangerous to use, but they did ask Domino about the drug (let’s call it Solinex.) Domino wanted help in dealing with Tawny and his clan so they suggested that Spook could come along, but the Stitcher would have none of it. Knowing that Tion owed them one for fixing the tablet, Spook suggested asking the Iris instead.

Domino agreed if Spook would talk to Tion, and handed Spook a small vial of Solinex from their medkit as an advance. It was difficult for Spook to leave the workshop for even minutes, but the agreement was rapidly reached: Tion plucked the conversation right from their minds and agreed to help before they had even said a word.

Spook rapidly returned home, and Tion and Domino were left to prepare for the trip. End scene.

I had hoped to recruit Lark the Arrival, playing into their lure, but Peri had to leave the call for a while. We framed a very short color scene involving travel to the Bear clan wedding, with Domino and four of their crew, as well as the enigmatic Tion.

We noted a new plot hook: Domino’s second-in-command and rival was left in charge of the clinic, and thought the action should move there next. Then we called it a night! Next episode in two weeks.

 

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