A Thousand and One Nights (RPG) Review

Not quite a party planning guide, not quite an RPG

By MARK WILSON

RPG System: A Thousand and One Nights

Released: 2012

Background and Theme
The 1001 Nights begins by saying this is not a book of Arab culture. This becomes odd at times, because they go to great lengths to describe naming conventions, clothing and culture that would be considered more or less authentic. More likely, this is a hedge against an unintended stereotype derived from the Arabian Nights source material. This isn’t a review on those occasionally murky waters, but I can appreciate an author wanting to write and roleplay within a setting that is not native to them. To my eye, nothing is in poor taste from a cultural perspective, so it’s safe in that regard.

In any case, removed from the trappings of reality, the author is simply – and clearly – enamored with the setting and its enchanted possibilities, and wishes to explore the worlds that the original tales opened up in their imagination. The Introduction reads more like the beginning of a story than of a game, and the next page is a Menu, and includes a robust list of thematic food that one might prepare for the occasion of playing this game. Clearly we’re meant to sink deeply into the theme of the book. I can appreciate this, because why go for an Arabian Nights idiom if you’re not going to truly go for it thematically. That said, I doubt I’ll be preparing roast goat anytime soon, but I appreciate the suggestion.

Other tidbits seem like they straddle the line of “too much” like a bowl to hold dice, that the author instructs you should be “pleasing to look at.” Ok, whatever. Again, the attention to these details shows a certain care, but like, my buddy’s gonna have too many snacks and my other friend’s going to be deciding between small rubber ducks to use as a miniature. Absolute thematic integration is a myth at any sane table.

A Note on Formatting
Where I capitalize a word that wouldn’t normally be, like Court or Ambition, it’s because it’s an official term referring to an element of play. Capitalization differentiates it from its normal usage.

Character Creation
You choose a Courtier (PC) within the Court of the Sultan. This can be any number of roles. The character is then defined quite exhaustively in a sensory manner (i.e. something about their speech, their hearing/observational qualities, scent (if any), etc.). It never strays into the uncomfortable here, but the author places a lot of emphasis on sensory descriptions throughout the book. Not terrible storytelling advice, but there are other ways to bring characters to life.

Characters also have something they Envy (e.g. the simple life of the water boy) and an Ambition (e.g. marry into the {X} family). These motivations drive the stories that are told.

Court v. Story
It’s important to understand this distinction. The characters from character creation are those the players control in Court. When the game cuts to stories, the players take on new personas as determined by the Storyteller (GM), but as they portray those characters in the Story, they are still their characters in Court. So it’s really the Court characters playing as the Story characters.

There can also exist stories within stories where this goes one level deeper. I’m not going to dig too far into that, except to say that the game does allow for this.

Victory Conditions
The game has a couple victory conditions, flowing from dice rolls at the end of stories. Characters can gain Freedom from the Court, achieve their Ambition, or be beheaded by the Sultan. Any of these end the game, and in the beheading scenario, a character’s epilogue simply involves them being part-way to their Freedom or Ambition.

While I think more than one person could win at the same time, this is not a cooperative game. In that sense, it feels more like a storytelling board game than most RPGs.

Stories
Stories make up the bulk of the mechanical section of the game. I had to read this section a few times, because the rules are confusingly parsed out in a lot of extraneous text. The presentation of mechanics could be much better, but the system does appear to make sense.

The goings-on of Court happen until a Story happens. Since stories get you the thing that will equate to victory, it won’t be long until this happens. Whoever cuts away to a story becomes the GM for that story, and can appoint other members of the Court to characters within the Story. Additionally, the GM resolves actions with a roll of the die, stating possible outcomes before rolling (e.g. “1-4, the snake bites her, 5-8, she cuts off the snake’s head, 9-12, she plays music and both do a cool dance.”). Players can declare interests in the Story by taking a die from the main bowl (Sultan’s Bowl), and if their inquiry is resolved in the Story, that die is rolled and it ends up either in their bowl or the GM’s. There are a few other rules governing when you can roll or obtain dice.

At the end of a Story, the dice in your bowl are allotted to one of three Victory Conditions: Safety, Freedom and Ambition, and rolled to see how many successes of each you have. Failing at Safety gets you closer to death. The other two require a certain number of successes to win the game, which you’ll accumulate over the course of several Stories.

Everyone else must GM before it comes back to that same person as GM, and the person with the fewest dice in their pool (or to the left of the GM as tiebreaker) in the next GM. Presumably, things are going on in Court between stories, so players are able to narrate what happens that maps to their Freedom, Ambition and Safety. Additionally, the author suggests that you include story elements that will relate to players’ Court characters, and perhaps add to the intrigue by slighting them, complimenting them, etc. There’s a “game within a game” element here, but no mechanics explicitly tied to this other than the roleplaying appeal.

The Sultan
There is a Sultan role with different rules, though most of the mechanics act similarly. Primarily, his “Safety” (risk of assassination, apparently) is more precarious, so he has to devote more dice to it, but also has ways of procuring more dice than the others. A number of dice will flow his way each round regardless of how the Story plays out.

I think I’d need to see this in play to see if there’s an imbalance. At a glance, it seems like the Sultan will always be more powerful and more likely to win, but needing two successes instead of one on Safety does change his “press your luck” mentality considerably.

The Problem of Gamification in Storytelling
I latched onto RPGs after having played various storytelling board/card games. One big issue I have with many of those is that there’s no true incentive to tell a good story, and in fact the only incentives that exist work against this goal. You merely figure out the manipulable mechanics and tell arbitrary, uninteresting stories that will help you win. And if you don’t, someone else will.

There’s not much of a hedge against this same problem here. It’s still a race to get the most dice at the end of each Story, then hope they roll your way. So, for example, players can declare an interest in the story (e.g. “I wonder what happens to the rabbit”) and place a die in front of themselves. If the GM resolves this inquiry, the die is rolled. On an even number, the player keeps it (in their bowl), on an odd number, the GM receives it. The GM can never receive more than eight of these in a Story. Then they either resolve all remaining inquiries or creation an interruption in Court that ends the Story without a resolution. Additionally, players can gift the GM a gem (die) for their pool if they tell a particularly interesting yarn, have a great description or story twist.

So let’s think this through. The players should try to get their inquiries in early and often (up to five at a time) so that it’s their dice being rolled in order to have a chance to keep them. It’s strategically advantageous for the GM to resolve the inquiries of whoever is losing, or to give everyone a roughly equal number, then abruptly interrupt the story and return to Court after they receive an 8th die. To restate this: there is an incentive to leave stories unfinished. I feel like I’m stating the obvious in saying that this is a problem for a storytelling game.

There is also a mechanic that allows players to sacrifice a die to remove two of an opponent’s Ambition dice. This can mitigate a runaway leader somewhat, but only if they are going for an Ambition victory. If the Sultan ignores Ambition and goes full Freedom-track, for example, with enough in Safety to stay alive, he may often be difficult to defeat.

There are actually some reasonable catch-up and balancing mechanics in there. But the problem is that none of them are tied to a good, or even coherent, story. In a competitive game, what I resolve as a GM is based on opponent dice pools, not storytelling. The story I tell can be arbitrary or meaningless, at no mechanical penalty, and I’ll want to cut it short once I’ve received the max potential benefit from it. Additionally, there’s never going to be a time where you’ll want to voluntarily give one of your dice to the GM for good storytelling. I mean, you might want to! But it would be objectively damaging to your chances of winning if you do.

You could ignore all of this to focus on the stories themselves, but the rolls are the only true source of tension in the game. You’d be ignoring the game itself. So if you’re doing that, I’d tell you to ignore the rulebook and just engage in a storytelling exercise without an RPG structure over it.

Its other sin is that it’s wrapped in a structure that suggests you should be roleplaying on multiple levels in order to maximize you Courtier’s opportunity. In reality, though, that isn’t the case. It’s just fortuitous dice rolls. Everything else is window dressing, and I’m left wondering how my Falconer or Merchant, for example, could possibly care that they were slighted by the Storyteller in being named a lowly role in a Story, when that fact will never matter outside our narration of whatever the dice rolls tell us. I’m also curious how I could care for my Falconer or Merchant enough to give them a meaningful story arc, since I’ll be spending the vast majority of the time roleplaying others as appointed by a rotating GM.

The stories exist only to provide a vehicle for the rolls. If the stories happen to be good ones, or the Court-based meta-story is at all intriguing, it’s by chance or luck, not game design that supports it. The subtle verbal ripostes and intrigue the text frequently alludes to and encourages are perhaps the ideal of how this game plays out, but are entirely unnecessary to achieve a favorable end, and given how much of the game will take place within the Stories, it’s doubtful the character you made in character creation will have much of an arc outside a hastily narrated one between Stories in order to make sense of what the dice rolls dictated.

So to summarize: there’s no agency; consequences and outcomes don’t flow from your decisions, they flow only from the luck of the roll. Additionally, the mechanics don’t support the storytelling and – in competitive groups – could actively hinder it. While this could appeal to a particular type of gamer, in “A Game of Enticing Stories” it makes no sense.

Game Night
The author outlines a large game night and talks about preparation for it, even suggesting food, costumes and certain types of music. No mention of the bowl that’s pleasing to look at this time, though. Alas.

It describes how to be Sultan for a large group, which involves some extra steps of collecting secrets from everyone (mechanically useless, but if you want to get into things) and the extra Sultan ability to mix and match who is in each successive Story (presuming you have enough to break into multiple groups). There’s also a way for a dead character to still play, though you won’t be able to win, just act as someone who can declare interests, tell stories, and generally push dice around.

If game night gets big enough, the Sultan appoints Viziers, who end up in different Stories than the Sultan to tell him what happened. It talks about gaining the Sultan’s favor (or losing his favor) as though this is an important matter, but I can’t see where this maps to anything of consequence mechanically. I think it’s just meant for someone to act like a Sultan, and such whims of favor are for roleplaying purposes only.

The author makes this all sound like grand fun, but this is also based on having a group of 10+. Once again, this feels like a board gaming problem. Are we sure this is categorized correctly here on The Geek?

Gestures
The book includes numerous subtle hand gestures that are intended to act as signals to the storyteller to emphasize certain things.

This is…unnecessary. Is asking aloud for additional description on a particular point really going to disrupt the story’s flow? Are gestures everyone just learned ever going to be misinterpreted? Are you ever really going to need more description about the smells in a scene? Is having to learn a series of gestures, and referencing them when they’re used, going to be more disruptive than simply communicating like reasonable adults? I’ll leave those for you to answer, but you can probably guess my responses.

If it were, say, ASL and geared toward providing accessibility for deaf or hard-of-hearing players, that’s one thing. But it’s not, so it’s just weird and cumbersome.

Example of Play and Summary
These sections are welcome, but outside of this specific book, I always wonder why the summary comes at the end in so many books. I prefer it at the beginning; even if I don’t understand each term, I can refer back to it as I read through the more granular rules, and it acts as a framing device for the entire system. By contrast, I often end up re-reading entire chapters of some rulebooks because I only learn later how they fit into the whole. But I digress…

The example of play includes a lot of sparkling descriptions, but is occasionally problematic. One player in the example decides that it’s his Courtier’s Ambition to sleep with another of the Courtiers…but without consulting with that Courtier’s player first. An interesting choice, to put it mildly. I cringed a bit at a scene later on when they’re in the middle of a Story and it narrates how the amorous Courtier is rubbing his cheek against the shoulder of his Ambition, the Court dancer and PC of one of the players. Not every RPG is going to be spotless in light of modern day standards for communication and consent, but creepy is creepy, and this game wasn’t printed that long ago. We could imagine that they’re really close friends or even partners who have established boundaries, but none of that is even hinted at in the text. There’s no excuse for this, imo.

The rest is straightforward, and gives a good accounting of how a game of this might play out, along with narrated scenes between stories to make sense of the dice rolls.

Conclusion
This book is kind of a mess. The author clearly had a lot of fun building a costumed, musical, well-catered, thematic storytelling party. I don’t begrudge them this endeavor, which clearly had some passion behind it. No one writes, illustrates and lays out 60+ pages without a passionate vision behind it, so there’s a bizarre guilt I feel in a negative review.

So here’s the bone I’ll throw: I could compare a streamlined version of this favorably to some storytelling board games I’ve played. The problems I have with its win conditions in regard to its storytelling are the same I have with Once Upon a Time, for example. And there are people who really like that game! So there’s an audience for this somewhere.

Additionally, I’m a fan of the Arabian Nights and this theme. Hell, I bought this PDF to mine it for ideas to pull into my own RPGs. I think there are probably groups who will take the game in the spirit with which it’s intended and will try to invest in the stories. There remains some interesting metagaming possibilities with the conceit of having stories within stories. A creative group could mine this aspect of the game for a lot of nuanced intrigue.

But then, that’s more about the group than the game.

So…

  • I don’t think the rules are conducive to building consistent, compelling or coherent narratives, and several rules actively undermine those ends.
  • I think the core game is a bit buried in the text as a whole, making it a lengthy, inefficient rulebook for what it ultimately delivers.
  • The focus on creating a thematic experience is commendable, but many of the suggestions frankly seem out of place in an RPG core book.

The theme shines, allowing for the right group of people to have an enjoyable storytelling experience. I just don’t think this will be the best option for those looking to channel their inner Scheherazade. If you want to build narratives around dice rolls with an Arabian theme, I recommend Tales of the Arabian Nights, which is a narrative board game that’s lots of fun and lacking some of the problems I have with 1001 Nights.

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