Review: Fly With Me - Do: Pilgrims Of The Flying Temple
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You would be forgiven if you saw Do: Pilgrims Of The Flying Temple and mistook it for a children's book. It's a slim volume, perfectly square, with a watercolor picture of a person hanging on for dear life to a green Chinese dragon. At least from the outside, the book would be at home in the kids' section of a Barnes & Noble.
This all seems to be very deliberate, since Do is a game which tries to evoke a sense of childlike wonder in the players. My word choice is careful, here; childlike is not the same thing as childish. In no way is Do a childish game, though it does seem to be a potentially wonderful way of getting kids into gaming (it even says ages 12+ on the cover, a refreshing acknowledgment in an aging hobby that role-playing games can and should be played by children). Do seemingly exists, above all else, to connect you to the stories of pretend that you used to act out with your friends as a child.
The author is Daniel Solis, a prodigious game creator who churns out games like a man possessed (seriously, go look at his website: http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com/ and recognize, when you do, that he hasn't been doing this for THAT long). He has a razor sharp mind for fun, simple mechanics, seemingly informed at least as much by Euro board game designers as he is by more traditional RPGs. The first time I ran across his name was a year or so ago for his game Happy Birthday, Robot!, a game made primarily for kids and classrooms. The subject material was so quirky and original that I couldn't help but smile when I ran across a copy. It tapped a way of introducing gaming to kids which is sorely underrepresented; while it was certainly not an act of outright charity, the attempt to get children into gaming through the classroom is an awesome public service as far as I'm concerned.
Do is a slightly different animal, though still very much in keeping with the tone and style of Solis' other work. It's a simple game with a simple premise: you play Pilgrims, teenaged emissaries and troubleshooters for the Temple. The Temple's religious leanings are never clearly defined, which is perfectly fine; this isn't a game about religion. All that's really concrete is that the Temple is a benevolent force and that the Pilgrims (the players) must try to make the universe a better place.
The universe of Do is an endless air realm, dotted by small blobs of floating earth. Each of these is a world, with its own people and customs. The people in question need not even be human; they could be plants or talking animals. The important bit is that there's a massive world to interact with, left flexible so that each group can take the game in the direction that suits its players best.
Plot hooks are elegantly baked into the game. Each session is spurred by a letter, a sort of SOS signal from one of the worlds in the Do-verse asking for help from the Temple. There are several examples in the book and they really are great. They're written purely in-character, serving to establish a whimsical, dreamlike feel to the game's universe as much as they do as session starters. The preferred example session is a letter from a young girl, written in crayon, asking for help escaping the belly of a whale. This is a fairly straight forward premise, one that could be at home in most RPGs, but simple rescue scenarios aren't all that can be done. There's a breakdancing challenge in one letter. Another has royal gardeners mixing up rose seeds, leading to an angry queen who doesn't like white roses.
Each letter has a number of “goal words” written into them. These are words which will serve as a focal point for the upcoming story, nouns or verbs which represent the main actors or problems in the letter. Generally, there are twenty per letter, leading to about two hours of play. The goal words serve as a sort of glue to the story, keeping the shared narrative of a session flexible but cohesive.
So the Pilgrims have a problem to solve and a blank canvas on which to paint. From there, the game becomes a storytelling exercise. One person serves as the storyteller at a time. This person draws from a bag of black and white stones. The combination of stones drawn dictates what the storyteller is able to narrate. One sentence is written at a time and narration duties pass around the table until a full story is told.
This would all be a bit too straightforward on its own. Pilgrims can't fail and are forbidden from resorting to violence. This is where the other players come in. Players not serving as the current narrator are called troublemakers. Their job is to throw a wrench into things and get the narrator into trouble. Trouble is an actual mechanical term, meaning that a narrator in trouble can't help the letter's author (in game terms, can't write about a goal word, thereby crossing it off) but only himself in order to get out of trouble.
At the end of a session, the group will have a story a few paragraphs in length about the adventures which have just taken place. The ending is either good or bad, depending on if the goal words were all crossed off. A good ending is one in which all of the goal words have been used; this outcome implies that the world on which the letter was written is left better off than the Pilgrims found it. If there are any goal words left, the Pilgrims were chased off by a populace annoyed at their meddling. Once the ending is determined, each player contributes to an epilogue describing how his or her Pilgrim altered the setting.
The game's highly suited to one off play. Character creation is lightweight, taking no more than a few minutes of quick creative thought, and sessions tend to be short. The letters serve as a nearly limitless grab bag of one shot material, whether a group's using pre-written letters or writing them from scratch. It's highly reminiscent of the way Fiasco feels, in this respect.
One thing I haven't seen much talk of, however, is the game's campaign play. There's some really good stuff here and I hope people are making use of it, despite the game's steadily growing reputation as an ideal one-shot pastime. The campaign structure is set up to create coming of age stories. Pilgrims are meant to change over time; their names, powers, and outlooks all change with each session. It ties nicely into the themes of childhood wonderment that I think pervades this work. A Pilgrim changing the way he helps people each session isn't so far off from the whiplash of a 13 year old's daily change of interests. Being a kid that age means seeing old things with new eyes, discovering things you thought you knew all over again; I don't think it's a stretch to say that the game's setting and its flexibility can easily be a metaphor for that, even if it may not be entirely intentional on Solis' part.
The campaign elaborates and completes the themes of the game in a way I'm not sure a one shot does. Your Pilgrim eventually grows up. The story ends for him or her. He either settles down to a normal life, presumably with all the travails that comes with, or retires as a monk. Either way, there's a certain static letdown involved when compared to a childhood spent flying around the universe, helping people in need. It doesn't seem like a happy ending, though not automatically a bad one. Again, it ties into a certain frame of reference which kids have: when you get old, you become lame and boring. Even though I'm not (too) boring at age 34, I certainly thought everyone over the age of 23 or so was drab when I was 12.
I'd be remiss if I didn't make special mention of the artwork. It is, to be to the point, stunning. Rendered largely in sepia tones, the pictures portray Pilgrims merrily going about their work in the strange world they live in. They're kids and they're portrayed as kids, which is exactly as it should be. Almost universally, the Pilgrims in the artwork are having fun. I think that's a big part of why the art works for me. It's a game about kids and growing up; even when the transition to adulthood isn't 100% fun... it's still a little bit fun.
So, is the game for you? I think it's certainly worth a check. This isn't a traditional role-playing game. If you're coming in from more tactical, combat-oriented games, it might make you a bit dizzy. And you write. Everyone writes. In some ways, it's a creative writing exercise more than a game. If you go in with the right expectations, this is a solid product, whether as a change of pace from your regular game or as a full-blown campaign game in its own right. Plus, at 25 bucks, the price to quality ratio is enough to justify a quick purchase based on idle curiosity.
If, instead, you're taken with new wave gaming this is absolutely a good buy. Solis is a rising star and Evil Hat Productions has given him a broad enough platform to get his stuff out there to a broader public. It's got a fairly low page count but is very dense and there are some truly innovative mechanics in here with its diceless, bag of stones approach. The same basic wrap-up applies: it's versatile enough to serve as a satisfying change of pace or as a long-term commitment.
So, yes, give this a spin, especially if you have kids old enough to game but young enough that the more serious or violent stuff might not be appropriate. I don't think there will be too much disappointment with this product if you know what sort of game it's trying to be.