I grew up in central South Dakota and, as a gamer from an early age (I convinced my folks to buy me the DnD redbox from a Sears catalog when I was nine), had to deal with a lot of flak, thanks largely to SUPER-informative publications like the Chick Tract “Dark Dungeons“, an upbeat little piece that I would find in my locker at school or see in my Sunday School mailbox with fair regularity.
I sometimes voice a fair amount of disdain for living in South Dakota, and you should understand: a lot of my bitterness comes from being the subject of a sort of passive-aggressive, community-wide intervention for about eight years. It got old.
With that said, my parents tended to take a pretty understanding view of the whole thing. I was involved in what I think is commonly known in academic circles as a “shit ton” of extracurricular activities, and my grades were good… in short, hauling around two gigantic, overstuffed gym bags full of DnD hardbacks wasn’t having any detrimental affects on anything other than my overburdened spine, so they general left it alone. (They took a similar approach to my voracious consumption of fantasy and science fiction, to the exclusion of almost all other literature, figuring “it doesn’t really matter what he’s reading, so long as he’s reading.”)
Still, it’s always been a bit of a sticking point with me; a sour note, if you will. It’s one thing (and a good thing) for your parents and extended family to “leave you be” to pursue your own interests, but it’s another thing entirely for them to join you from time to time in this thing that you really enjoy. I certainly knew what that kind of thing felt like, thanks to my time in band, and sports, and theatre productions, but I’d never got my family to sit down with me and help me slay a dragon.
Apparently, that’s always bothered me at least a little bit, because I keep trying to find “my kind” of games that my family might also enjoy; I mean, I know they like games, because we play a lot of them, and always have — my parents’ collection of board games, decks of cards, and domino sets is quite impressive.
Generally, this effort falls far short of success (I don’t even pull the game out, let alone try to play it), but there have been a few bright spots here and there: my dad took to Shadows Over Camelot like a pro, for example: fire gleaming in his eyes as he undertook the destruction of catapults that dared threaten the castle.
There was always the tantalizing opportunity for success, is what I’m saying.
That opportunity has gotten a lot better as my sister’s kids get older, because they are brilliant and funny and happen to think their uncle is somewhat cool. I’ve played very short games of Shadows and Otherkind with them before, but as I packed for one of my far-too-infrequent visits back home, there was really only one game I considered worth sticking in my backpack.
That game was the shiny new hardback copy of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple that I’d just gotten in the mail days before, written by Daniel Solis and inspired in part by animated series like Avatar: the Last Airbender (a big hit with the preteen crowd in my family).
“I brought a game along for us to play,” I told my twelve-year old nephew.
“What kind of game?” he asked.
“Kind of a story-telling game,” I said.
(Now, I’ve gotten a little tired of the “storygame” label that gets slapped on any indie-published game these days, but I want to be clear about this point — Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is very definitely a story-telling game in the purest, non-jargony sense — in fact, I would call it a story-telling game far more readily than I would call it a roleplaying game, and I don’t think that would upset the author very much; certainly, I intend it as a compliment.)
“But we need a couple people to play,” I said.
‘How many?” he asked.
“A few,” I repled. “We need to get your mom and Grandma to play.”
“Coooooool,” he said.
Getting my nephew on board was the easy part, however, because our limited schedule and (literally) dozens of relatives coming by to visit, hold the new baby, and get caught up meant that we didn’t really have a large window of opportunity.
In fact, it wasn’t until Saturday evening, with our departure looming the next afternoon, that I decided that if the game was going to happen at all, it had to happen Now.
I won’t lie: I pretty much used guilt to get people to participate. In short, my nephew wanted to play, my nephew is awesome and kind of adorable, and anyone who said no would not be disappointing me, but him… which is basically like kicking a puppy.
No one wants to kick a puppy.
So, thanks to that bit of leverage, we got the smaller kids to bed (I’d intended for them to play, but it had just gotten too late) and sat down with my nephew, my wife (a gamer), and my sister and mom, both of whom took their seats protesting that (a) they didn’t get these kinds of games (b) they were absolutely crap at coming up with stories and (c) they were way too tired to think.
I would not be deterred. Passports (character sheets) were handed out, and the super-simple process of character creation began. I explained the process of coming with a pilgrim name, gratefully read example names from the beautiful book, used my own character (whom I’d played while the game was still being playtested) as an example, and in a few minutes we had our pilgrims assembled and ready to deal with the requests for aid being sent to the Flying Temple.
D, my nephew, presented us with Pilgrim Punching Fox, who gets into trouble by trying to solve problems with his lightning fast kung-fu, and who helps people by being clever, fast, nimble, and generally fox-like.
B, his mom and my sister, came up with Pilgrim Stinking Sherpa, who get into trouble because of the overwhelming stench that surrounds her, and helps people by leading them to the best course of action.
J, my mom, eventually worked out Pilgrim Curious Dog, who gets into trouble by poking around in things she shouldn’t, and helps people by being loyal.
K, my wife, introduced Pilgrim Warm House, who gets into trouble by believing unswervingly in True Love, and who helps people by providing shelter.
I brought back Pilgrim Broken Bear (formerly Broken Stone), who gets into trouble by breaking things accidentally, and who helps people by being protective.
The exciting thing: we hadn’t even gotten through character generation before my nephew and sister were kicking in ideas, brainstorming different ways the pilgrims’ Banners (bad points) and Avatars (good points) would work in play, and even making suggestions to J for her character’s name — she’s a literal person, and the metaphors that lie behind most Pilgrim names were a bit too much for her at 10pm, but once we focused on what she wanted (loyalty, for example), and then found a word to go with that, it was easy.
Here’s how play went.
The monks gathered before the Monks in the Flying Temple at the Center of All Things.
“Letters have come, asking the Temple for assistance,” they finally said. “Take them and begin your pilgrimmage. Go into the worlds that orbit the Temple. Fix their problems. Try not to make anything worse.”
Often, someone picks out a single letter (a call for help to the Temple) beforehand, but I really liked the part of the background where it mentions the masters handing the pilgrims a stack of letters and tell them to get to work, so rather than picking one letter, I picked out four (all which were sort of ‘beginner’ letters, designed to be resolved fairly quickly). I read each one aloud, then we decided who to help first.
I don’t have all the options right in front of me, but if I remember correctly, the letters were from:
- The littlest bear from the Goldilocks story, asking for help because his parents were arguing about what to do with the sociopathic little blonde girl they’d found in their house.
- A kid who had accidentally unleashed a (or several) giant monster(s) that were destroying his home city.
- A little girl with monsters under her bed who had eaten most of her stuffed animals already and were coming after her.
- Another girl, age 8, whose planet had been swallowed by a sky-whale.
After only a little deliberation, the pilgrims decided to begin by helping out the girl with the monsters under her bed.
Every story has a number of “Goal Words” that we have to ‘check off’ by earning the right to use them in either our helping sentences or trouble sentences. If you cross them off before anyone draws a total of 8 stones, you succeed in your task in a way that makes (most) everyone happy. As I said, this story was one of the easier ones in the Book of Letters, in that the list of Goal Words is pretty short:
Poldo (one of the stuffed animals)
Captain FluffyEars (one of the other stuffed animals)
Agatha (the little girl)
Sister (her mean sister)
Play is supposed to begin with the oldest player, but since J was floundering a bit, I decided to go first, and then hand off to my nephew for the next round, so I drew stones from a bag. I got two white and 1 black and decided to keep the two white stones, which meant I could do something helpful for the story, but would then get into Trouble, which would affect my ability to succeed in future rounds. Also, I would get to use up one Goal Word for my “helpful” sentence and the Troublemakers (everyone else) would get to use up another one when they got Broken Bear in trouble.
Pilgrim Broken Bear glides in through the window of Agatha’s room, lands on her bed, and pats her on the head, telling her the pilgrims will not let anything happen to her.
The troublemakers then added:
In his effort to get to the girl first, the speed of Broken Bear’s landing breaks the bed, causing it to tip into the monster hole, beneath.
Oops. It was then D’s turn, who drew his three stones and (like me) drew a statistically-likely 2-of-one-color, 1-of-another-color combination. He chose to keep the two stones, which again meant he does something helpful (either help a worldly person, or get another pilgrim out of trouble), then gets into trouble himself. He opted to help Agatha, rather than get Broken Bear out of trouble.
Pilgrim Punching Fox quickly snags Agatha before she can fall into the monster hole, and carries her to safety.
Then the troublemakers (mostly B) added:
His lightning-fast combat reflexes cause him to knock Agatha’s sister cold when she storm’s in to see what all the noise is about.
B’s turn. Like me and D, she drew two stones of one color and 1 of another, but she changes things up by keeping only a single stone. What this means is that her pilgrim immediately gets into trouble (and the troublemakers get to use a Goal Word), but she can get get out of trouble by using her Avatar qualities, but can’t use a Goal word. This means she uses one less goal word than we did, but SHE doesn’t end up in trouble at the end of her turn.
The arrival of Pilgrim Stinking Sherpa drives the monsters into a feeding frenzy, as her stench fills the small room.
Stinking Sherpa leads the pursuing monsters into the sister’s empty room and towards the inviting closet.
Now it’s J’s turn, and she draws a stone combination the same as the rest of us. Like B, she decides to keep only one stone and (ultimately) stay out of Trouble. The troublemakers found her “Curious” banner quite easy to use:
Curious Dog notices Captain Fluffy Ears‘ glowing green eyes, and moves to investigate.
J was a bit at a loss as to how to proceed and get herself out of trouble with loyalty (fatigue might have been a factor here), but with some help and a good conversation, came up with:
Captain FluffyEars, sensing another loyal protector, shouts “Get back, it’s a trap!”
This brought us to K, who drew 2-1, and kept two white.
Sizing up the scene, Pilgrim Warm House gathers up Agatha and her unconscious sister in her arms and moves them to safety on the other side of the room.
Poldo, the traitor teddybear, takes this opportunity to escape the monsters, who were actually trying to get to him all along.
We then moved to D (skipping me, which is something that used to be in the playtest version of the game, but may not actually be in the final rule book), who drew a 2-1 split. However, since he was already in trouble, his options were changed somewhat, and allowed him to use only one Goal Word, and change the kind of trouble he was in.
Pilgrim Punching Fox whirls toward Pilgrim Warm House, points at the unconscious sister and says “That wasn’t my fault!”
In his furious backpedaling, he slips on the remnant of the blanket and falls down into the muddy monster hole.
Finally, B drew 2-1, kept one stone, and wrapped things up by using the final Goal Word.
Enraged by her scent, the heretofore-unnoticed monsters under Agatha’s sister’s bed also emerge.
The outstanding sherpa leads all the monsters back to the monster hole, then slips out with Punching Fox and drops the bed into the hole to block their reentry.
That wrapped up our rounds, and when it was all said and done, we had earned a “parades” ending by crossing off all our Goal words before anyone got eight of any stone (pretty easy with five players and only 10 words to cross off). We opted to have one Epilogue sentence, since it was getting super-late.
Thrilled by the return of Captain Fluffy Ears, the sisters (now reconciled) bid the Pilgrims farewell and lay out sleeping bags on the floor to get some rest.
I have notes about how we then changed the pilgrims names and why, but they aren’t here, so I will instead wrap things up by talking about how my non-gamer family responded to the game.
My nephew loved it. We were halfway through the game when he asked if we’d have time to play again the next day, and wrapping up the epilogue when he asked how he could possibly get a copy of the book for “me and Mom.”
My sister decreed the game was “awesome” and, if I may say so, took to it like a native. She enjoyed the heck out of her Stinking Sherpa’s abilities (good and bad) and had an unmistakable gleam of delight in her eyes when she proposed sentences for someone else’s Trouble. She immediately grasped the nuances of the stone draws, and confidently explained them to our mom mere moments after I had explained them to her. She was totally engaged and excited, which was basically a complete switch from her mood and energy level when she sat down (she’s training for a marathon, so her late-evening energy level is understandably at low-tide by then).
My mom was a bit adrift during the game which, her protests aside, I attribute mostly to the late hour, not her “lack of imagination” (which is pure stuff and nonsense). Despite that, she said she enjoyed the whole thing a lot, and especially loved seeing the rest of us just ‘jam’ on one idea after another, “like you’d been practicing the whole thing for weeks” — she thought the way the game helped you come up with a cool story with so little to start with was “just cool.”
My wife, who was a champion and actually got our fussy infant son to sleep while playing, so I could keep explaining things, had a great time, though I suspect she will always have the most fun with games where you get to roll dice and beat up bad guys in various awesome ways — that’s just how she rolls. That said, she always had a suggestion to make, and was fully engaged in what was going on.
We started playing around ten-thirty, and wrapped up around midnight, which is damned late by pretty much anyone’s standards. It was a remarkably fun, and a real first for a lot of the people playing.
I say again: Great game, Mr. Solis.
My mom and I had another conversation about the game (and Gaming) the next day, during which she was full of questions about how I and my friends scheduled regular game sessions, how we decided what to play, how we knew when we were “done” for the night, and things like that — it was the most interest she’s shown in my hobby… probably ever, and – for me – that made the late evening totally worth it.
If I never play another game of Pilgrims (small chance of that), it will still rank as one of my favorite games ever, for that reason alone.