Book Review: How We Came to Live Here

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I had the pleasure of talking to Brennan Taylor when I went to GenCon this summer. One of the results of that conversation was a copy of How We Came to Live Here for me to put my eyes on and review for the lovely readers of TC. I was able to take the time to do that recently and these are the results.

How We Came to Live Here is not your average RPG. The first thing to be aware of if that it is highly collaborative in nature. Like, “no GM” collaborative. The sessions are played out as the group decides they will be, using story lines that the group works together to develop. If that’s not your kind of thing, then you need not apply. This is not a new trend in RPGs. You don’t have to look for to find other examples of games in a similar vein; Fiasco and Steal Away Jordon fit the bill nicely.

Where How We Came to Live Here separates itself from most RPGs on the market right now is that the setting and content are based solidly in the mythology of the native peoples of the American Southwest. As you are no-doubt aware, the majority of the RPGs the we play are based on European folklore. Sci-fi games are almost solely based on Euro-American ideas and the only exceptions to the previous two examples are the games based on the culture of China or Japan.

It’s a challenging prospect to immerse yourself in a culture that, if you’re like me, is so wholly different from your own. In fact, when I first picked up the to book to begin reading it for this review, I was put off by the differences. I admit, I have a difficult time adapting to games with settings that are so far outside of the cultural ideals that I usually absorb in my games and reading. However, once you wrap your mind around the differences, you will quickly find out why this book won the Gold ENnie for Best Writing at GenCon this year a was nominated for the Best Writing ENnie for 2010.

The writing in this book is excellent. The best sections are those that the head each chapter. These stories do an excellent job of setting the tone of the game. They give you good insight into the culture of The People and the way that their society is set up. The writing that is found throughout the rest of the book shines as well. All of the descriptions of play are clear and just one read-through can give you a really good idea of how a game would progress.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a collaborative, GM-less game. Ideally, you need four or more players. Two of these players take on the roles of the Inside Player and the Outside Player. These players have roles as close to that of GM as you’ll get in this game. In the scenes that are set up, they deal with matter taking place inside of the village and outside the village, respectively.

The other players take on the role of Hero Players, those people whose stories are being explored as the game is played. The session starts with character creation, as well as the building of the village in which the Hero Players live. As the character creation process proceeds, the players all create an interconnected web of relationships between themselves and the NPCs that are also created as part of this process. Each player selects a few different motivations for their character and the enjoyment of the game comes from seeing those motivations play out as the sessions go on.

What intrigues me about the ways in which these motivations come into effect comes from the interplay between the Inside Player, Outside Player and the Hero Players. As the game progresses, the Hero Players are continually tempted to accomplish their motivations by breaking the rules and customs of The People. If a player gains too many Corruption Points, then they become an Outsider and come under the control of the Outside Player.

In another departure from the majority of games on the market (although there are plenty of games that use them as well), How We Came to Live Here uses Fudge Dice to resolve its conflict. The conflicts are all largely narrative in style and the Fudge dice are used to attack and defend during the conflicts. The same system is used for both physical combat as well as conflicts occurring between players or between players and NPCs. While I like to roll dice with numbers and add modifiers to them to find out if I succeeded or not, using the Fudge dice seems like it would definitely add to the narrative nature of the game.

And, really, the story is what How We Came to Live Here seems to be all about. If you’re looking for a fast-paced game with a lot of hack-and-slash combat, then you need not look here. If, however, you want to have a good time telling an interactive story set in a mythology that is very different from the one you (likely) usually take in, then this game is for you.

As a final word, I will say that I initially had a difficult time getting into the world of the game as I was reading. This is not a knock on the game but more of an indication of the ways in which I usually consume game-related content. As I said above, the mythology of How We Came to Live Here is very different from the of most games and it took me a while to wrap my mind around the idea. It’s definitely a step outside of my usual comfort zone when it comes to gaming. Once I really sat down and took the time to read the book, I was very please with what I saw. That said, I am likely not the only person who will run into this issue, so make sure that everyone who plays is working to buy in to the world to the same degree.

Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

The game looks good but if you don’t want something really narrative-driven or don’t like using Fudge dice, then you will probably want to pass.

[tags]review, reviews, rpg, rpgs, role playing games, How We Came to Live Here[/tags]

4 thoughts on “Book Review: How We Came to Live Here

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  1. I really feel HWCTLH’s structure isn’t going to be that strange to people used to a traditional GM role. Authority isn’t completely atomized (like with Fiasco) so there are still defined roles that are responsible for creating adversity and playing NPCs. You can take on one of these roles or you can play a hero, and if you choose the latter your responsibility isn’t any different from playing a PC in any game.

    One cool thing I love about HWCTLH is that the culture, setting, and color all get introduced gradually – as you gain power in the world, your choices open up, and the act of deciding what choices to make (join a new kiva society? “Level up” in my clan?) tell you more and more about the world. It’s a painless way to introduce a somewhat alien setting and it is very effective.


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