The Morning broke softly over the shining city of New Sodom. As the all-consuming struggle with the Jackals receded into our collective memory, we looked with faint hope upon the year ahead of us. A year to regather and rebuild. A year to find ourselves and define our purpose in the absence of struggle and defiance as our pragmatic poles. A year in which to live.
We gathered to give thanks to Lilantha, watching over the lake and plotting our new dawn.
First emerging in 2013 and still steadfastly in print to this day, The Quiet Year by designer Avery Alder is perhaps the most lauded and influential in a series of games by her ‘Buried Without Ceremony’ imprint that seek to explore the themes of community, relationships, doubt, queerness, and the collapse of civilization within the parameters of storytelling and emergent play.
To that end, The Quiet Year takes players on a guided experience in narrative interaction that is freeform in its execution, simple in its mechanics and wildly deft in its potential to engage. By embracing the storytelling possibilities inherent in the art of cartography and combining them with a shared narrative roleplaying experience, the prompts it offers as your guideposts on this personal journey are both vague enough to enable a startling array of outcomes, and import-laden enough to give those outcomes real weight. As an experience, it sits before you like a mirror – echoing back what you bring to it, and equally at home with levity or leaden weight.
Skepto knew Lilantha wasn’t real. The poisoned fish that had rendered their populace barren weren’t a blight visited upon them by their lack of faith any more than their ceremonial dancing guaranteed the fecundity of the harvest. That incessant dribble of ichor from the abandoned powerplant up-stream was the culprit. Anyone could see that. Aritha and the others were cloth-eared in their insistence and so bound to tradition that it would surely spell their doom. Only Janus had the vision to see them through the encroaching march of seasons, her ingenuity at crafting the waterwheel had improved their lives immeasurably, though she remained sidelined by the council, dismissed for her lack of faith. Skepto tensed as he turned towards the great hall, the burning conviction of a decision made uncoiling in his belly.
Available as either a simple PDF download or in a delightful physical edition shipped in a slight hessian sack, The Quiet Year is the assured antithesis of the current zeitgeist-straddling obsession with bloat and boxes. All that is required to play is a sheet of paper, pen or pencil, a few six sided dice, a deck of ordinary playing cards and perhaps a fistful of buttons (made for purpose seasonal event cards and a scattering of repurposed craftshop beads, respectively within the physical edition).
The game tasks you with shepherding a settlement of survivors and weathering the events of the titular quiet year taking place between the rock of their unexplored conflict with the Jackals and the hard place of the looming arrival of the foreboding Frost Shepherds. Play commences by drawing the bones of the settlement on a shared sheet of paper, passing the pencil as ideas unfurl and a rudimentary backstory is conceived. Our own inaugural outpost of ‘New Sodom’ found purchase upon wooden pontoons floating atop a poisoned lake, replete with runways crisscrossing between huts and halls, and the sad marsh-laden potato plantation that crested the lake’s edge. Fish were in abundance, shelter was scarce, and there was much work to be done.
The fiery tail of the comet split the sky like a sheet, sending the burgeoning population into paroxysms of wonder and speculation. Wide- eyed and slack-jawed we traced its arc to impact as the factions that had developed and now threatened to leave us riven both pondered its arrival and spun theories to help fold its arrival into their existing agendas.
Each turn thereafter during the game, players will add to the map as a kind of living diary and monument to the travails of their settlement. Using the deck of 52 cards, each of which signify a week’s passage of time and the events that transpired therein, players will take turns choosing from a selection of story prompts – triggering events and evolutions that include good news, bad news, omens, projects, policies and the many pendulous swings of your people’s collective fortune.
We commenced pragmatically, taking advantage of the clemency of spring to initiate infrastructure and safeguard against scarcity as we looked to promulgate the whims of the best and brightest amongst our settlement to help seed utopian ideals. Of course it wasn’t long before our inner storytellers had other ideas and the spectre of conflict raised its thorny head in the guise of pestilence, famine and fevered theology.
And this is what makes The Quiet Year such a compelling exercise as well as a great game. It’s a neat reflection on what makes us tick and how as a species we seem compelled to embrace entropy at any given opportunity if for no other reason than to give us something to gossip about.
For every sober and practical interpretation of a story beat we tried to ink upon our page, swift on its heels came a crescendo of spanners to gum things up with horrifying contingencies. We were gleefully, capriciously, embodying the deities of this world in a decidedly Greek fashion. We wanted our settlement to suffer, to strive, to overcome. Because it was challenging to offer solutions, because it was engaging to un-knot twists, but mostly cos it was fun to fuck with them.
They emerged from the smoking ruin of the crater, pale and long of limb they shuffled from the underworld, disturbed by the arrival of this celestial detritus and pointing their bony fingers towards our relative beacon of plenty. With a shuffling gait they drew ever nearer, morphing from a speck upon the horizon into a terrible certainty as their caravan approached the outskirts of New Sodom. We christened them “the ‘Neathies” and in doing so robbed ourselves of the empathy required to question the wall we were hastily erecting to halt their advance.
Another central tenet of the experience on offer here is the nudges toward discussion embedded in the cards and events they portray. Debate is given a primacy amongst the elements of player agency that overshadows even the more tactile and tangible act of mapmaking, and in doing so offers a fantastic allegorical space to explore all manner of the many and varied themes and agues that plague us as both individuals and a society. The run time of your session will be almost entirely dictated by this aspect and how seriously you choose to take it. Those buttons/beads I mentioned earlier? They are your designated ‘Enmity Tokens’ which are used to keep track of virtual slights, grudges and unresolved disagreements (be they political, social, theological or personal).
I’m not saying your settlement and your stories will necessarily form analogues of real world people and events, I’m just noting how frequently such concerns are wont to surface as though we were looking for a way to broach them in a space that was comfortingly one step removed from reality – as though to rob them of the kind of teeth that often renders family gatherings such an explosive cauldron of simmering resentment. Bring it to thanksgiving is what I’m saying. If uncle Tony gets punched than he probably deserved it.
The effects of the ‘Neathblight were as devastating as they were quick. Cowering at the foot of our iron barricades, the ‘neathies had brought with them a miasmic essence that wafted over our by now emaciated people- our fields lying fallow as we diverted our energies to the wall. Wracked with St. Vitus spasms, the victims of the epidemic were compelled to craft themselves elaborate hats, even as the scalps upon which they hoped to place them withered away. With every stitch of their bonnets they grew weaker, scores of us succumbing until, stumbling into the great hall one day – the people were aghast to see Aritha herself displaying a shockingly ostentatious new fascinator and knowing in that moment the days of her reign were numbered.
Clearly another strength the game exhibits is its ability to turn on a dime tonally. There is no situation too fraught and no supposition so contentious that it cannot be alleviated or derailed by the timely arrival of funny hats. We traipsed the ruins of a dying world for scrap, we battled hunger and our own prejudices as reason wrestled with mystery traditions, we turned on our own and strung them from pikes…but we also laughed our asses off.
In the end I can only reiterate that the measure of the game is weighed in what you bring to it as a group. It requires a leap of faith that the semblance of structure it imparts will be enough to rekindle in you the very human act of shared storytelling, an instinct that has atrophied as we prefer to outsource our imagination to Hollywood hacks and leave our agency in hock to d-pads, rulebooks and player aids, content to vicariously imbibe other people’s tales ad-infinitum.
The effigies smouldered long into the night as the people mourned Aritha’s passing, shrouded in a scent of carbonised hats they knew would linger. As she breathed her last, a vision of Lilantha herself had appeared and the people were struck dumb with reverence. It was a sign that would knit them together with the sense that a new unity was afoot, rife with purpose. Even now the wall was being repurposed to buttress the hydroponic gardens, the sacrifices would cease and the death of Skepto would not be in vain. A whisper of excitement passed through the people with a promise that revitalised all who would listen…and the same it spoke was Janus.
With a sense of both resolution and the cyclical nature of all things, we flipped another card.
And the Frost Shepherds were upon us.