A story game about monsters and decolonialisation for 2-4 players by Avery Alder McDaldno & Mark Diaz Truman
In my itinerary for this year’s game reviews and articles, Avery McDaldno’s name is going to come up a lot. She makes interesting games, the ones which are fun but can also make you think (as referenced in my inaugural article). There’s Ribbon Drive which uses mixtapes the players make to frame scenes, Monsterhearts where the phenomenon of the teenager and the monster are blended together better than any tv show, or The Quiet Year which The Deep Forest is a reskinning of.
So why am I talking about The Deep Forest? Well, I have reviewed The Quiet Year on another site, The Deep Forest is recent and The Deep Forest is free. All you need is some six sided dice like you find in most board games, paper, pencils, a deck of cards and some tokens or sweets to represent contempt. I’ll get to contempt in a minute.
You’ve got your components and you’ve gone to the Buried Without Ceremony site to download the game. Now what?
First of all you read out the rules. Out loud. To everyone. The Quiet Year did this and with multiple playthroughs it’s not necessary but can be a little palate cleanser/reminder for the game to come. The setup comes first, with the host reading out several paragraphs, punctuated by world-building to keep people interested. By the time the rules have been read, the community has been built. If you’ve played The Quiet Year before, the differences start this early.
Lee drew the central part of the human colony; a massive ziggurat. Between us we drew landmarks which represented the borders of our colony: A river, some waystones, the last of the human huts and a hole where the monsters’ bodies were thrown down during the occupation.
We then picked concepts the humans brought to us during the colonisation. By stating their existence we outwardly said that these things were useful to our community. The choices were: Roads, irrigated farming, fortune-telling magic and metallurgy. One would be adopted safely into our community (farming, as we’d only been hunters before) and the rest were taboos. Roads? Those stony shits? Fuck them. Fuck all roads. Our community hated them and everything they stood for. All of these things needed to be reflected on the map, so the roads were overgrown, a magical tower was smashed apart, as were metal goods.
You might be wondering where characters fit in this game? In the predecessor; The Quiet Year, there weren’t any at all. This time you get eased into the process by way of monsters. Each player makes a monster (singular or a group) and draws their lair onto the map.
Lee made a race of panthermen who hung out in the ruins of the ziggurat. Alex created a tribe of centaurs and drew them near the waystones. I made a group of small trees called the leaflings, who were the only ones able to fit in the human houses. They ran around, whistling and feeling everything with their leaves. A weird bunch. Finally Steve made a single giant monster called Nobunaka, a kaiju-sized beast who communicated mainly be screaming and breathing fire. They lived together in the ruins of their former masters, They talked and played, no longer needing to hunt each other since they adopted the human farming techniques. Roads, we decided, were useless to Nobunaka and rejected by the leaflings and centaurs.
You next go through the rules quickly. What each players’ turn looks like and what you can do. Once that’s done, play starts pretty quickly. A player draws a card, reads it out. The simplest cards read something like, “You see a good omen, what is it? OR You see a bad omen, what is it?” But others might be, “One of the smaller monsters begins to build something that will, ‘bring the humans back’, how does the community react? OR One of the larger monsters begins to consume smaller monsters. Why? How does the community react?”
The person who’s turn it is picks which option they will answer. They can talk to the other players, sound it out, but no one is supposed to speak out of turn, no one can reject their idea. If they don’t like it, they can take a Contempt Point to visibly show the disdain of one of the monsters in the community. The player whose turn it is then draws their answer on the map, ideally using no words at all. A good omen might be a shooting star over the community, for instance.
You then pick one of three actions.
Discover Something Old lets you draw something else on the map, something someone found from before or during the occupation.
Start a Project invests time in something which will generally improve the community and take 1-6 weeks (turns) to complete. When it’s done, you get to say how it concluded. An investigation into the murder of a neighbouring unicorn showed that our old kin, the ratfolk, were behind the murder. The creation of a government building for the races took a long time, almost too long. Still, when it was done, we had a place for any meetings and a sense of unity in the community. Even Nobunaka had an oversized seat. When the snake people had been found out to be working with humans, we drive them back and built a wall around their land, a process which took some time. Like any time a decision is made, Contempt can be taken if someone doesn’t like the project. The rules say that projects shouldn’t cancel each other out or contradict each other but we had some with vaguely crossed purposes. The flight of the leaflings was going to take longer than Nobunaka’s zealous destruction of their home. The leaflings were housing refugees from enemy races, something Nobunaka didn’t care for.
The final action is to Agree on Something. The active player makes a statement on behalf of one of the races, then the other players go around either agreeing with it on behalf of a monster or describing how they nonverbally express their disagreement. One of the centaurs might huff and bang a hoof on the ground. Nobunaka would scream angrily (more than it normally would). The leaflings might pretend to be distracted and run away, or once, wouldn’t even show up.
Life in the community isn’t easy, even with the humans gone. The monsters work together, but natural conflicts pop up over time, through the cards or a natural sense of pacing which seems to come through the game. There are strict rules about when you can say things and they mainly prevent saying ‘no’ to another player when they make a suggestion, or planning ahead. Together, a framework is built with the actions and the cards.
“Agree on Something,” is an action which expresses the apparent unity of the group but provides a nonverbal out for anyone who doesn’t actually agree. It lets resentment fester and players make the monsters behave according to those results.
Contempt Points are a fantastic mechanic, something my group didn’t quite get the first time we played The Quiet Year, but they’ve become language in our group used jokingly (most of the time) in other games. If someone does something to the community which you don’t like, you take a Contempt Point. The thing is, mechanically it does nothing, so what you do is make a show of it. Slam a point down, scowl at the person who took it, pantomime your action even though you can’t say anything as you do. The person who made the move needs to know that you took Contempt. The other players need to know. Now decisions in the game may be influenced by the knowledge that parties in the community don’t like certain things. You cash them in by doing something selfish or diffusing tensions.
The leaflings had the most Contempt, despite being whimsical, fey beings. They started out as the people who could interpret Nobunaka, afraid of its fire breath but fine hiding underneath it. When the kaiju started to expand his territory and burnt nearby woods down, the leaflings took Contempt. When it wrecked their homes, Contempt. The allegiance with the snake people caused a lot of Contempt from the insular community, maybe the knowledge of monsters hating the snakes led to the initial hostilities? When we brokered a peace treaty in time to face off against a horde of humans who had disguised themselves as monsters, a lot of Contempt went away. Those damn sneaky humans.
The cards you read from are split out into four suits; one for each season. You have one year to get your community in shape and for a game with no dice rolls, just player interpretations drawn onto a map, there’s no guarantee that everyone will survive to the end. Somewhere in the stack of cards for winter is a card which simply says, “The Heroes Arrive. The Game is Over.” It could happen at any time. Every week in that final season is precious, your projects may never see light. Your conflicts may be abruptly cut short by the goddamn heroes.
In my game, we were a little too ready to end the game and the humans revealed themselves early. Their kind had pretended to be long-limbed monsters called The Distended. They hid in a tower until it collapsed and the advance forces rode into battle on giant beetles. We forged a fragile peace with the snake people, exiled the rats and faced the humans head on. Finally, the heroes arrived. We’d had a civil war, several land grabs and vague attempts at unity. The panthermen had secretly re-adopted metallurgy. We allowed an apothecary to be created in the hopes of curing an affliction which plagued the centaurs. So many monsters had died. So very many.
Lee, Steve, Alex and I looked at the, “Heroes Arrive,” card. We were finally turning things around, but would we be too late? It took a little while to think on it and decide that it would cost us greatly, but we would make it through the conflict and drive them away. Whether we all kept working together afterwards and whether this community would last? That wasn’t the question and we could only hope for the best.
The Deep Forest takes 3-4 hours in its entirety, however watching a year in the life of a community grow, fight and change is fascinating. It never goes the way I expect it to and like all of Avery McDaldno & Mark Diaz Truman’s games I’ve played so far, I feel like I’ve been taken on a journey.
So, should you play this game?
I definitely recommend The Deep Forest to people whether or not they have played role-playing games.
The set up has players build the map and talk about their choices while hearing how to play. Everyone reads a little of the rules, they’re all on the same page right away. The deck and map as interfaces are great for structuring play while encouraging creativity. The wording of the rules makes sure that everyone knows their ability to draw is not to be judged, their decisions cannot be overturned (even though Contempt can still be taken).
The Deep Forest is ultimately about decolonialisation and the lingering effects of a hostile colonising force on the natives. Even though in the moment it was simply a fun story with some daft elements, the experience stuck with me as I’m sure it did the other players.
You can find the game for free at Buried Without Ceremony, here
The Deep Forest is a free game, which is pretty awesome. The thing is, it can be played using your tablet, a deck of cards, a few things scavenged from board games, some pencils and paper, but I felt it needed something more.
The game comes with, “The Oracle,” which is a sheet explaining what each card draw means. I feel that takes players out of the game a bit to have to cross reference anything. I used a Word document to my own deck using the entries for each value, then printed them out and sleeved them using a different colour for each season. Spring was green, summer yellow, autumn orange and winter light blue.
Inspired by Carolina Death Crawl I pasted the rules onto cards so that players could draw and read those rather than pass print outs around. As the paragraphs are fairly short, they fit fairly easily. I printed fronts and backs, then put them into clear sleeves so the rules could be kept in order. I shall be uploading these cards to RPGgeek soon, so keep an eye on the Deep Forest’s page if you want to use them.
Our favourite version of Contempt Tokens are little red poker chip-looking things from a Houses of the Blooded Kickstarter. They have a golden rose and dagger in them. As The Deep Forest puts the Contempt onto the map, we used blue glass beads bought from a garden supply stall at some hippy festival as Magic: The Gathering life points a couple of decades ago.
The dice are just standard d6’s, but Steve picked us out a set each of different colours so we would all remember who had made each project.
The pad I bought specifically for The Quiet Year, the stationary has been randomly bought and discovered by the group. The index card is because I have a million of them in the flat. I did forget to make a card explaining the actions which could be taken so I quickly scribbled one out.
I still need to sort out a box for the components, then I might buy dice and pencils specifically for a “Quiet Year/Deep Forest” kit to take to places.