Reading Muse – A storytelling game by Jonathan Benn

After I posted this I had a discussion with Jonathan in the comments, if you are interested in Muse, go check them out as well.

/W

There’s a thread over on Story Games where Jonathan Benn discusses why he almost got out of the hobby in 2006, and talks about the game he wrote when he addressed those reasons.

I can sympathize. A few years earlier I had left my gaming group behind out of similar frustrations, and started my work with Höstdimma (18th century postapoc game, not available in English. If you read Swedish you can get it through my Lulu store.) From the thread we learn that Jonathan developed his game in isolation from the rest of the story game community. I wonder how his game turned out.

Muse

Muse


The book
My copy of the game is a PDF of 59 pages US letter. The text is formated in a single rather wide column. Not counting the cover there are no pictures except for diagrams explaining how to interpret the cards that are used in play, and showing the state of the table at various stages during an example game. The game was a quick read.

The setting
Muse is a universal system, and has no setting. There are guidelines for developing a setting as part of play.

The rules
There are no mechanics at the character level, no conflict or task resolution. But there’s a card (ordinary 52 card deck) driven bidding mechanic that is used to resolve conflicts between the participants, and to answer questions asked during setup (“Will the prince rescue the princess from the dragon?”). There are strict rules governing the rotation of narrations privileges.

The form
Muse is mostly about form, and takes the unusual step of removing the player role entirely. All the participants are GMs, and take turns telling bits of the story, using a shared gallery of NPC like characters. All narration is done in the present tense, in third person.

Conclusion
There is no setting at all.
The rules are OK, the card driven mechanic seems a bit convoluted, but there should be some depth and possibility for employing tactics while playing.
The form is excellent, there are lots of very clear examples for how the game should be played.

Will I play it?
No, I don’t think so. The game is a very good wheel, but it’s still a wheel. I wonder if Jonathan would have written it at all if someone had shown him Univesalis (by Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes), which does mostly the same thing but with dice instead of cards; and it has retained PCs, even if they rotate among the players. Still, the game is free. I might recommend it to someone who wants a game of storytelling that still feels like a proper, winnable, game.

Removing both PCs and players is a bold move. While there is no doubt that Muse is a storytelling game, I’m not sure I would call it a role playing game. There is no first person play left at all.

www.benn.ca/muse – The official Muse web page.

ramshead.indie-rpgs.com – The official Universalis web page.

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6 Comments

  1. September 26, 2011 at 18:51

    Hi,

    Thanks for the review. I’d just like to add/clarify a few points:

    1. I definitely did not create Muse in isolation from the rest of the story games community. I’ve played many of the new breed of games. I definitely have heard of Universalis (although I couldn’t seem to buy the rules in Canada and had to content myself with what I could glean from reading reviews).

    2. I don’t consider Muse a Role-Playing Game myself, so I agree with your review. I call Muse a Storytelling Game (STG).

    3. I’ve always thought of Muse as GM-less because everyone gets to play equally. I find it very interesting that you consider it player-less because everyone is a GM in a sense. I’ve never thought of it that way. 🙂

    • Wilhelm said,

      September 26, 2011 at 19:09

      Hi Benn,

      Nice of you to drop by.

      Regarding point one, at what stage of the development of Muse did you come in contact with the story games community? I got the impression that you at least started the development of Muse in isolation. And I thought it interesting that you arrived at something so similar (but yet quite different) to the grand daddy Universalis.

      As for point three, when i first started reading I was also thinking that it was a GM-less game, but when I saw that there was no “acting as your character” bits, and the stuff the actual player did was more along the lines of what GMs do, I changed my mind. This is the first player-less “RPG” I’ve seen. In our circles we have jested about such a game, where no meddling players can get in the way of the awesome, it was very cool to see that the game actually exists.

      For yet another game that leans on very similar fundamental ideas, yet plays completely differently, you could take a look at my game While the World Ends (multiple actual play reports are linked in the Index of gaming posts in the left side bar). The shared world building, character goals and the “Will this be fun to play?” question, are shared elements of both games.

      /Wilhelm

      • September 29, 2011 at 02:31

        Hi Wilhelm,

        It was my contact with the story games community that inspired me to write Muse. I was inspired by how people were no longer content with the idea that “a good GM is one that ignores the rules.” I wanted to become a part of the dialogue. I wanted to create a game where the rules created exactly the kind of game I liked to play.

        –Jonathan

  2. Paul T. said,

    September 26, 2011 at 19:46

    I enjoyed reading this, too. What a nice review!

    I agree with your comments about it “not being a roleplaying game”.

    Take this with a grain of salt, because I haven’t played Universalis, but I think Muse is a much simpler/quicker-to-learn game. The rules are very simple, and can be learned as you play.

    I wonder about the comment that the card rules seem convoluted. I’m probably too close to the game to judge, but it seems to me that they are really, really simple. (It’s always, “Highest card wins,” with the possibility to play a card if you’re losing, which is called “Turning the tides”, and that’s almost the entirety of the card rules right there.) Wilhelm, is there perhaps something about the presentation that makes them appear more arcane than they are?

    • Wilhelm said,

      September 26, 2011 at 20:43

      Hi,
      I don’t see any big difference in complexity between Universalis (which I have played) and Muse (which I have not played), The Universalis rules text is thicker, but there’s less text on each page, as for reading them I think they are about the same in actual length (maybe that Universalis is a bit longer).

      Regarding the convoluted card mechanics, they are more complex than the Universalis dice rules, on the other hand you not only resolve conflicts (sort of) with them, but in Muse there’s the whole tide turning mechanism, that makes it feel like an actual game to me. When I read the rules I couldn’t quite get how it worked, especially how players get new cards. (And there might be an error in the second diagram showing the game table, I didn’t quite get it to match the adjacent rules text.)

      If it was my game I’d take a good look at the Q&A section, is it there because it is easy to miss how those rules work? Could they be answered in their respective sections of the main text, with good headlines to make easier reference?

      Also, I think a one page cheat sheet would help both teaching and learning the game. Easy to follow bullet point-style explanations of how the game is played, what the active player does, what the listeners do, and how the cards are used.

      With that said, read my “review” in the context of the “Reading games” article in the left hand bar. The “grades” for Setting, Rules and Form in the Conclusion don’t really say anything about how I liked the game, but rather how clear and detailed the game is in those three areas. The Will I play it? is frightfully short term, there are games that I have said never-ever about that hit the table just months later, and games i vowed to play that I don’t fancy any longer. I don’t post any Playing X articles unless I have played or run the game at least three times since I want to feel that any experiences I’ve had aren’t flukes, and most games only see the table once. So the ratio of them is also a bit misleading as for what I actually play.

      Thanks for showing an interest in my work, Paul.

      • September 29, 2011 at 02:43

        Hi Wilhelm,

        Regarding the diagrams, I’m quite sure there are no errors.

        I do believe my text could benefit from a play example of an entire game. That might help to clear up your confusion. Otherwise, if you can tell me the exact paragraphs you’re finding difficult I can see if I can improve them.

        Adding The Q&A section was an active decision meant to make the rules easier to read. It covers unusual cases, which if included in the main rules would only serve to make them more difficult to understand.

        The Cheat Sheet you mention exists. It’s called the Muse Quick Reference and is available for download in PDF and eBook formats from the Muse website http://www.benn.ca/muse/

        Sincerely,

        –Jonathan


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