So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well (2020)
by Madeleine Ember
Low levels (I guess)
Hello, and welcome to **ZINEMASSACRE*2020**! This year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 2, their second zine writing promotion campaign. Despite my utter distaste for the idea of a major fundraising platform intruding on a publishing genre for people with more ideas than money, I have to admit Zinequest was successful in motivating a whole lot of gamers to launch their personal projects. While many of them were completely alien to my interests (“A tabletop role-playing game about the drama and excitement of skating in a roller derby bout” and “An accessible tabletop RPG in zine form, exploring the intersection of teen angst and crushing capitalism.” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.
So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well promises a complete adventure, as well as a secondary zine with
backgrounds for the Troika RPG. The printed zine uses a flipover format,
with the adventure on one side, and the backgrounds on the other (28-28 pages).
It is a gorgeous physical object with heavy-duty paper, and stylish art that
borrows from the imagery and appearance of Greek vases (the module) and
psychedelic art that looks like stuff produced on a risograph (the
backgrounds). This blog does not review production values, but for the sake of
fairness, it has to be mentioned that as an art project, it is a success.
So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well
As a scenario, So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well starts with the player characters being thrown down a well for various crimes (a random chart is included), and having to find their way out through a bizarre underworld. The module text is constructed in the style of choose your own adventure books, where situations or general locations are described on a page or two, and solving the local challenges, the characters can move forward to the next setpiece encounter. Obviously, this format results in the same major linearity issues gamebooks had, with the way leading forward and never really back. Since the players are supposed to try getting out, this is, by itself, is an acceptable compromise, but it does make the adventure very short. There are altogether 11 encounters, of which a party might experience as few as four, and as many as nine. Except for one branch, all detours are illusory, and lead back to the main plotline.
Meaningful player choice rarely enters the picture. The setpieces are fantastic and moody – caverns populated by fungus-infested underworld denizens, an underground city living by really strange traditions, a hive of intelligent insects – but the encounters themselves are mainly lead-in text followed by player prompts which branch off to different results (or, mostly don’t branch off at all). Like in gamebooks, player decisions are not really open. Once the characters arrive in the subterranean city, they are guests at a home, and may follow one of the residents to a secret meeting after holding polite conversation, or not. What happens if the players decide to investigate the city instead? What if they try to find a way out? What if they try to observe the citizens to determine whether they are treated as guests or captives? Here, the module is tremendously unhelpful. Not because a good game aid should spell out these discrete possibilities, but precisely because a good game aid accommodates unforeseen choices. So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well spends a lot of effort on constructing its encounters, but the whole neat structure falls apart once the players get off the plot train. And because the module is written as a gamebook, the writing itself does not function well as a reference – it is too long and too particular about trying to tell its own story to allow a GM and players to construct theirs. The climax of the subterranean city section – creepy and imaginative – is written as a video game cutscene with the players as passive observers, followed by a scene which negates their previous choice whether they went to the secret meeting or not, followed by a climactic fight where they can pick sides, but it does not matter because both choices lead to the same end result (the module does not consider what happen if they pick a side, and it loses).
So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well is rounded out by six Troika backgrounds (character templates), and a random table of 36 items which are on the lolrandumb side (“A postcard: one side with the picture of a pickle on the back of an elephant; the other side saying ‘Wish I weren’t here!’”). The secondary zine, titled A Miscellany of Backgrounds, contains 12 more character templates, from Gourd Golem (intelligent, mobile compost heap) to The Capsician (a scientist studying horrendously strong spices). Some of these seem interesting to play, although putting them together in a single adventuring group is sure to destroy any sense of verisimilitude or thematic cohesion. But hey – they come with full-page art plates, and the art is indeed lovely; bold, colourful, with a strong 60s/70s pop art sensibility.
So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well is perhaps best described as a simulacrum product. It is a pretty, often imaginative art album that happens to be in the form of an RPG zine, Roy Lichtenstein-style. Its table utility is dubious, and it does not really play to the strengths of the adventure module format. It is fascinating, and probably inevitable that old-school gaming, a game approach founded on actual play and table functionality would eventually wrap around and become an aesthetic to exploit, and perhaps even put on a pedestal in a modern art gallery. However, I will note that Silent Titans, Patrick Stuart’s super-indulgent art-project-to-end-all-art-projects artpunk module is not just art, it is a playable scenario too. So You Have Been Thrown Down a Well is surely art. But is it a game?
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: ** / *****