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On the last day of their Edinburgh Fringe run this year, I joined Adventurers Wanted: Rebellion for a full four-hour session. Having invested in the one-hundred-hour-long story and few dozen characters, and having been part of the story myself, I wanted to see how it ended. I was fortunate and quick enough to get to play on the last day, to have the chance to be part of bringing the story to an end. I reprised my character Marks, the dwarf barbarian who joined the rebellion to overthrow the bourgeois cult and their extractivist oppression and seize the means of production. I have written about how much I enjoyed playing with them, but their finale show was one that was beyond a doubt one of the biggest highlights of the things I saw at the Edinburgh Festivals in a long time.

I knew it was going to be a special show because it was the finale to their epic story: Chris Hislop was behind the GM screen, and opened the session in the midst of the pitched final battle between the Rebellion and the colonial cult in an alternate, clockwork universe, in front of a portal back to our home world. The Cult was led by Chargasx, a beholder with the power to control time, who unleashed a massive strip mining tank towards the portal. We had to defeat the beholder and stop the tank. But adding a twist to this climactic boss fight was Leo West, who appeared on stage and sprung on the players an intricate time travel puzzle, in which we were in a future where we had already stopped the tank and defeated Chargasx, and were working backwards in time through the events that led up to it, converging towards the moment when Chargasx was killed. If there were any contradictions in events between the timelines, then it would create a paradox which would lead to us failing at the puzzle.

This took us players a couple of rounds to get the hang of, getting used to the fact that it was not just the narrative but also the mechanics of the combat rounds and initiative order that was going backwards. But once we got the hang of what was going on, it didn’t take us long to get fully invested. Jane McGonigal uses the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow to describe the focussed and heightened state of full immersion when playing a game.[1] The need for improvised performance in table-top role-playing requires us to embody the character and actions and immerse ourselves in the game in a way that incorporates a sense of flow, such that, as Mary Flanagan argues, ‘the ego fades away, letting creative urges shape directions’.[2] Once we were in the zone, the tension on stage was palpable in every dice roll, as we did the sums frantically to see if we had successfully solved the puzzle, or when we scrambled to find solutions to new challenges we were faced with.

The time paradox puzzle meant that we could not kill Chargasx in the present timeline until we made it consistent with the events in the future. This meant that in addition to our actions having to be consistent, and we would have to ensure that our characters’ conditions (like silence, petrification, or even death), and other details in the setting were consistent as well (whether the tank has shields up, etc). But the real challenge was that it needed us to make decisions in the future timeline, and ensure that our actions in the present led to a consistent state of affairs. We could decide when, for example, we disabled the shield that protected the Hellfire Engine: do we want it disabled earlier in time, giving us a larger window to do damage but a tighter window to successfully accomplish it, or do we dispel it later, meaning we would have a harder time hitting it, but we would have a larger achieving it? If we fail to dispel the shield within the time frame that we set ourselves, we create a paradox. If we do not damage it enough, we fail to stop it.

The session was an intense contest as players matched wits against the GMs. There were some stunning moments like when Roberta Risk (played by Naomi Heathcote) cast Hold Monster on Chargasx, an outstanding tactical move that left Hislop visibly surprised and outwitted. Another spectacular moment was when Bex Foxwood’s Thatchie made a fortuitous and prescient move to heal an ally in future-going-backwards timeline, anticipating correctly that they would have been killed in that round. There was even a paradox-inducing character death, Jamie Anderson’s Jan Du getting disintegrated by a death ray, which heightened the stakes and tension of the scenario, giving us a further challenge to deal with. We overcame this by breaking the game on a critical success, summoning on stage a player who would be joining us on stage in the following hour, Gerald McDermott playing Harvey, who has the ability to revivify the dead, who went on to revive Jan.

Perhaps the cleverest move was by Nemo Martin’s Telemachus who, upon seeing that they did not take any actions in the future timeline, decided to establish that they were petrified in the future, and voluntarily chose to stay petrified by failing saving throws to ensure consistency and avoid a paradox. This was second in cleverness to the fact that Nemo’s character was named Telemachus as a nod to Finding Nemo being an adaptation of the Odyssey.

What made this session work so wonderfully was that all the players came together in solving a seemingly difficult and intricate puzzle. Everything about this game, from the form of a table-top RPG to the way in which the GMs killed a character to raise the stakes, motivated us to collaborate on solving this climactic puzzle that the entire story had been leading up to. All of this gave the triumph an even grander scale. This is what McGonigal describes as a moment of ‘fiero’[3], or a powerful rush at overcome adversity.

The finale of Adventurers Wanted: Rebellion shows what is the best of table-top RPGs: it was a tremendous effort that brought several dozens of people together to be part of a huge adventure, there were moments poignant moments of storytelling (often leading to the death of fan favourite characters), there was a deep political commentary on colonial extractivism, and the format was made as accessible to diverse audiences as it possibly could be. The story blended fantasy tropes, time travel and elements of Lovecraftian horror. The show itself had a great format and the game showed great ingenuity, especially in the final session with such an imaginative and complex mechanics. This sense of fiero that rounded off the adventure, and the poetic resolution of the story in the epilogue, were all fitting endings to the tremendous epic.


Notes:

[1] Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They Can Change the World, London: Jonathan Cape, 2011. p36.

[2] Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. p150.

[3] Ibid. p.33


Acknowledgements: I have nothing but great praise for the folks behind Adventurers Wanted, Leo West, Naomi Heathcote, Chris Hislop, Nemo Martin, Chloe Mashiter (#HireChloe), and Leo West, who were not just outstanding performers and producers, but lovely and welcoming people and some of the most wonderfully nedry friends one could hope for. But I would like to add to this my thanks to the fellow players who made the day special, BexChazz, G, and Jamie, for such a spectacular show.