Tales from the Fireside – Roc ‘n’ Roll

Campfire returns from his voyage across the oceans to spin you a Tale from a very different cloth.

——————–

Let me weave you a tale, my friend, from the finest Persian silks. It’s the story of a man – a brash young sailor beset by misfortune who voyaged forth to sell his wares at the great marketplaces of the world and ended up grief-stricken, crippled, wounded and insane. He met hags and princesses, sorceresses and sultans, and though his stories were told the world over only I and I alone know how the story began, and how it ended.

And how can I know these things, you might ask? I know the sailor’s life from start to finish, for you see, I am that man.

All us tabletop gamers have a list of games we’d like to own but probably never will. It’s a price thing – it’s difficult justifying splashing out for Space Hulk 3rd Edition when the same amount of money could buy so many other games in its place. We see Descent slumbering in its coffin box and baulk at the price – how much?! Reluctantly, we let go of the dream. We palm ourselves off with reasons for not owning it: It’d take too long to play; I don’t know enough people who’d want to play it anyway; It’s just not worth it.

Secretly we covet it still, and harbour fantasies wherein we win the lottery, buy a mansion, and use a single grand room in the eastern wing to house our Collector’s Edition of War of the Ring.

My spiel verboten is Tales of the Arabian Nights. Not the most expensive game out there. Not the biggest, the most intricate, the game with so many pieces opening the box is akin to being Pandora unleashing all the punched-out tokens and action cards of sin unto a world innocent of games more complicated than Snap. Tales has its fair share of tokens, cards and tiles. It’s a big box game with a beautiful board; it comes with three dice and a half-dozen cardboard figurines to be wedged into plastic stands, and I never thought I’d own it because life usually isn’t that fair.

Yet thanks to my kindly wife and her first wedding anniversary gift to me – a paper gift, no less – I own this wondrous thing. Let me tell you about it.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a game about stories – the box leaves this in no doubt. “The legendary storytelling boardgame in the world of Aladdin and Sindbad” it says on the front. It’s not a game concerned with hoodwinking opponents and employing Mensa-level tactical skill to achieve victory – it’s hardly concerned with victory at all. It does have set victory conditions but it’s the taking part that counts here, and not the winning.

Don’t believe me? Last time I played it I fulfilled my victory formula fairly early on, while my good wife was lost and still bumbling around the map. Rather than seal my victory, a chance encounter at the heart of Arabia allowed me to enter a haunted house half-way across the map; at the cost of winning I decided to check it out. The treasures it could offer intrigued me, as did the stories it might hold.

After I’d been to the house, while I was hot-footing it back to Baghdad my wife lost her Lost status and won the game. I don’t care; I got to visit a haunted house and chase spirits from it by pretending to be a mighty magician. Why be bitter about losing some poxy board game when I have such an amazing story to tell?

But for all its storytelling, Tales is still a board game – albeit one clearly influenced by the likes of Dungeons and Dragons and the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the ‘80s. At the start of the game players choose three skills each for their characters; these help determine the outcome of the encounters characters face throughout the game. Every turn characters move a number of spaces on the board as determined by their wealth level. Players then draw an encounter card depicting a character, location or city that they’ve run into.

These encounters form the bulk of the game. Each encounter card can be read a number of ways depending on the kind of terrain the player’s crossing when the card is drawn – or for character encounter cards, the time of day it is in-game when encountering the character. The number on the card is cross-referenced using a list from the Book of Tales – the ring-bound tome that houses the game’s stories – and the player rolls a die to select a random encounter from that list. The newly chosen encounter is then cross-referenced against the Reaction Matrices card.

Once the player’s chosen a reaction, and rolled the Destiny Die – a die that adds or subtracts a number from the reaction’s reference number – the adjusted number is then cross-referenced back against the Book of Tales and the initial paragraph of the character’s story that accompanies it is read out.

That all sounds as dull as Iranian well-water, right? There’s no getting around it: There’s a lot of cross-referencing in this game. With three or more players this burden can be shared, with one player playing his turn, one gauging references on the Reaction Matrix, and another reading aloud from the Book of Tales. With only two players there’s a lot of tiresome flipping back and forth.

Fortunately the good part – the story-telling – is really bloody good.

Take those three skills I mentioned earlier. The skill pool is so wide, chances are you’re not going to get to use them, at least not for a while. It can seem unfair at first: You tooled your character up with Seamanship, Luck and Weapon Use yet you keep running into situations that require Courtly Graces, Magic or Stealth and Stealing. To make things worse, when an encounter goes badly – and they will – you often end up with a status condition.

Most statuses function like anti-skills. They’re bad things that happen, that plague you until you manage to lose them. They have a habit of accumulating, gathering steam, even subsuming your entire game beneath them.

For example, I didn’t start that aforementioned fateful game as a grief-stricken, maddened cripple; I began it with a quest. I was to visit three disparate cities – denoted by quest tokens scattered across the map by my wife – and once I’d visited the third I’d achieve great fortune, get destiny points, story points and skills up the wazoo.

Only, on my very first turn I encountered a burning house. Thinking it best to avoid its flames I chose to hide from it. I rolled a Minus on the Destiny Die – something I did so frequently in that first game, we started wondering if the die was loaded.

As the story went, after the flames had died down, the following morning villagers found the corpse of a little girl who’d burned to death while I’d hidden like a coward. This realisation caused my character to become Grief-Stricken.

While Grief-Stricken, I couldn’t use any of my skills. Though I accumulated many over the course of the game they sat on the table as useless as chastity belt to a eunuch. Perhaps if I’d had use of my skills, I would have been able to bargain with the Mad Hag I encountered a couple turns later, whose barmy prattling turned me Insane.

Being Insane meant I could no longer choose my reactions to anything I encountered. Instead, my wife chose what to do on my behalf. Her choices ranged from the almost benign (“While at sea you encounter a Huge Whirlpool! I’m going to make you drink it.”) to the downright malicious (“When you try to abduct the Imprisoned Princess she screams for guards who beat your face in. You gain the Crippled status. Also, you ugly.”)

On the other hand, if you’re lucky, skills can be wonderful things to have. In another game, having Piety helped when I lost count in the Palace of a Hundred Doors, and prayed the door I was about to open didn’t hide the furious Efreet the Sultan had warned me about (it didn’t); Acting and Disguise helped when I’d boarded a War Fleet and needed a distraction to steal treasure from its captain; Stealth and Stealing must have helped when a Sorceress tried to trick me into spending too long in the Cave of Wonders, so that I might remain trapped there forever.

I mean, I spent much of that game enslaved by my wife and having to give her any treasure I found or destiny points I racked up, but apart from that, I didn’t do too badly. At least I didn’t end up crippled in the face.

All of which brings me to my Happily Ever After ending. Yes, after drinking whirlpools, irritating hags, going wild-eyed crazy and being beaten by several ugly sticks I ran into a disguised princess and managed to charm her with my penchant for gibbering. She fell in love with me, I returned that love by crazily trying to insert a stoat into my bottom, and in the space of a single turn I’d lost my Grief-Stricken status, become Vizier of a nearby city (in line to one day be Sultan) gained wealth beyond my wildest dreams, and been given the Married status, which stated that every time I returned to my new home city I should roll die to see if my in-game wife and I were pregnant.

“Look,” my real-world wife said, pointing to the card. “If you roll snake-eyes she gives birth to a hideous baby with the face of an elderly camel, and you become Grief-Stricken again!”

Suffice to say, even though I missed my Pert-Bottomed Cherub of the Mysterious East greatly, I steered well clear of our marital bed and Real Wife won the game soon after.

I’d built Tales of the Arabian Nights up too much, I’d thought. It couldn’t possibly live up to my fantastical expectations of it. Even as I was unpacking it for the first time, punching out all those Story tokens and marveling at its beauty I knew it couldn’t be as good as I’d dreamed.

But these are Arabian Nights, my friend, where furious Djinn are chained in caverns, magical storms rise and flee in the blink of an eye, and the spread wings of a roc can blot the stars from the desert sky.

Was it as good as I’d dreamed? You tell me:

What would Arabian Nights be without Arabian Dreams to fill them?

——————–

Campfire Burning is a storyteller for the ages. Tell him of your own dreams – email him at campfire@littlemetaldog.com

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