This is a review/critique of Guy Shalev’s game Cranium Rats. My comments relate to the draft labeled 1.1 (beta version), which he was kind enough to give me a printed copy of at Bigor 6.
Cranium Rats is a game for 3 players and a GM. Each player plays a different aspect of a single character’s personality; how the character reacts to a given situation posed by the GM is determined by the dominant aspect, and the players can compete for the position of dominant aspect. The game mechanics deal then with two types of conflict and resolution: external problems the character tries to overcome and internal struggles between different aspects of the character’s personality.
For the sake of symmetry, the idea is to have 3 characters in the game, and for each character, each player plays a different aspect. A good recommendation the game offers (page 6) is for these characters not to share scenes, which could really bog the game down. Instead, it is recommended that the individual characters’ storylines take place in parallel, and affect each other indirectly.
The 3 aspects the players portray are called Rat, Dirt and Water. Rat is probably the easiest to intuitively understand, and therefore roleplay: it represents animal urges, raw survival instinct, and a direct, visceral approach. Dirt represents stability, stasis, and a cerebral approach. Water represents dissolution, change, but has a very passive, path-of-least-resistance side to it. On first read it seemed that Rat is the fire under a character’s behind, with the other aspects dragging him down; on second read, it looks more like Rat as instinct vs. Dirt as reason, with Water a third wheel or hindrance.
Each character is created by the player of that character’s Dirt Aspect, who gives the character a name, brief description, possible specialties (what in other games would be skills or advantages) and divides 8 dots between the character’s 3 traits – Physical, Social and Mental. The Rat and Dirt players each pick a goal for the character that is suitable to their Aspect. Each Aspect starts at a rating of 5, and has a dice reservoir equal to the Aspect’s rating which can be used both to boost the character’s chances of success in external conflicts (if you are the active Aspect) and in inter-Aspect struggles. Each Player (not Aspect) is also given 3 Tokens (and the GM is given 5) per session, which can be used to aid or bribe other players or the GM. I understand this to be a player-to-player reward mechanism, like Fan Mail in Primetime Adventures.
The game has some fairly involved rules for both resolving external conflicts and the struggles between the 3 Aspects. One thing that confused me was inconsistent terminology, in particular that used to describe struggles between Aspects. The rules for this appear under a heading called “bidding”, but the struggle is also referred to in various places as a “flood scene”, which I think is the preferred term. A flood scene is one in which the three Aspects battle for control of the character, and also try to strengthen themselves either at the expense of the other Aspects – by “attacking” an Aspect and (if they win) stealing a “dot” from its rating, or by competing for unassigned dots: an Aspect’s rating can be reduced without another Aspect increasing (in cases of ties or when no one rolls any successes on their dice), and this dot can be up for grabs in later conflicts; in addition, character creation is immediately followed by the award of an unassigned 16th dot, which precipitates an initial flood scene as the Aspects compete for that dot.
While most of the rules seem quite solid, and the rules text manages to convey the interesting combination of highly collaborative storytelling with highly competitive “board” game that I think Cranium Rats is striving for, I felt that some of the rules were either murky and confusing, or evoked a “what’s the point?” reaction. In particular, some rules which Guy acknowledges were inspired by other games seem to me to be akin to “Web 2.0 features” on a modern website. Just as not every webpage needs pastel gradients, rounded corners and AJAX, so too this game doesn’t need an option to “rack up the stakes” (by spending a token) to zoom in from Conflict Resolution (Win/Lose) to Task Resolution (Hit/Miss). While that might be a nice feature in a heroic action game, I think in this game it would just bog things down – with the multiple options for internal and external conflict, prolonging external conflicts seems to me to be too much of a hassle. In the indie RPG spirit, you’ll also find a discussion of scene framing (which reminded me of Primetime Adventures) and a distinction drawn in both types of conflict between which player wins the conflict and which player narrates the results. I think the latter can be jettisoned without taking away anything from the game (and giving the players one less bit to remember).
Other fiddly bits I’d question are Aspect ratios – the relative strengths of the 3 Aspects cause bonuses and penalties in both external conflict and flood scenes (I think); who can use what tokens (you can use other players’ tokens but not your own); what tokens are good for (there’s a rule where you can give a player or the GM a token in return for narration rights, but they aren’t obliged to accept it); a tricky rule for “stealing” dice which costs you a token and a die (so how is that stealing?), and the rule about success in external actions, which states that “an Aspect rolls an an amount of dice equal to his Dots, each die that comes up equal to or lower than the relevant Trait is a success. If the number of successes is a multiplier of the Aspect (not including Aspect=1) then multiply the number of successes by that multiplier.” Since the number of successes will be less than or equal to the Aspect, one wonders how it could be a multiplier; although I realized that this might be possible by adding dice from advantages (GM call), specialties (the character’s skills), contributed tokens and the Aspect’s dice reservoir, I still found this confusing.
Besides issues with unclear text in the rules, the big weakness of this game is the players’ goal. The introduction (which cites films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as inspiration) and the example of play (on page 4) give the impression that the focus of this game is characters in crisis, and the gradual breakdown of their personalities. But the next sections, Background and In Between, seem to take the game elsewhere. Background consists of 4 short fable-like vignettes, while In Between describes the 3 Aspects, or rather tries to make you “grasp” them intuitively. Together, they provide an ethereal weave of pseudo-mystical, quasi-mythic ideas, which I am willing to accept as “background”, but which I find sorely lacking as “setting”, which apparently is what they are intended to be. The whole thing is too subtle for me, and this lead me to be confused by the next section, Rules, which open with a mystifying glossary – an unhelpful slew of terms which really need to be defined in context and in a logical order, not as disconnected items. In particular, I was confused and annoyed by the term “Enlightened”, which is the game’s term for GM, but also a bit of superfluous setting-related terminology. Apparently, the characters in play are divided into those seeking Enlightenment (and being manipulated by the Rat/Dirt/Water Aspects) and the “Unseeking” (NPCs).
I really think the game lacks a good discussion of the idea of a quest for Enlightenment, because it turns out to be a central idea of the game: while each player will be striving to increase their own Aspect, this will end up dooming the character – when any of the Aspects reaches 10 or 0, the character is destroyed (perhaps only metaphorically). On the other hand, if the character’s Aspects remain equal after 5 different flood scenes, the character becomes “Enlightened” and “wins” the game. In fact, each time a struggle between the Aspects ends with the three in balance, the character advances – gaining one dot in a trait, assigned by the player of the Water Aspect (thus fulfilling this Aspect’s role as the “force of change”, and perhaps compensating a bit for this role being the most passive as far as goals and narration are concerned).
The concept is promoted further by the idea of “Magician” characters, who manage to maintain the balance between their three Aspects and reap the benefit for this in the form of Kewl magic powers. This is mentioned as only an option, and I did find it somewhat at odds with the initial naturalistic image (from the example of play) of a romantic nebbish caught in an armed robbery.
The clash here between player (Aspect) goals and the good of the character is the key dynamic of the game, I think. Do the players pull together to save the character, or focus on winning and watch the character tear apart? Both options will probably result in some good stories.
Overall, I found this an interesting game, with an intriguing idea and comprehensible mechanics, which could benefit from a tighter focus on “what this game is about?” and a good rewrite of the rules. The “setting” material, while colorful, should perhaps be reworked or countered with a stronger emphasis on “people in crisis” rather than the quest for enlightenment (or, enlightenment should be framed more strongly in terms of personal crisis and sudden moments of clarity).