Wednesday, July 10, 2019

My Star-Crossed Moments at Origins 2019

The Sunday of Origins 2019 was winding to a close, and I was making my way through the dealers' hall, seeing what was on sale. There I was, catching up with friends at the Bully Pulpit booth, seeing what the company had on offer. And there it was, one last copy of Alex Roberts' Star-Crossed. The final copy, almost as if it were destined. I told myself that I wanted to make a sweep of the hall, that I wanted to be sure that there wasn't anything else I wanted to buy at Origins. I made my way through the rest of the hall, but it wasn't long before an unassailable feeling took root in me.

I knew. Not two minutes after walking away from the booth, I knew. There could be nothing else, there was nothing else. But to explain this, I'm going to have to back up a couple of days...

Love in the Space Station Fobolex

It was the third Games on Demand slot, and there was an absolute bounty of good games that I wanted to play in. Of course, there could be only one. As games began filling up, one in particular was gathering a group: a massive event called "Space Station Fobolex". Here's what I knew: it was a bunch of parallel games of Star-Crossed, the game where you play out a relationship through a Jenga tower, based on the RPG Dread. Also it took place on a space station? As I watched the group pile up, I finally made my decision and slipped out the door as they left. What transpired was a night to remember, and one of the most phenomenal game experiences of the entire convention.

I knew that the game involved a Jenga tower, because it was based on Dread, the horror RPG where your character dies if the tower falls when you try to make a pull. It was obvious to me that, therefore, when the tower fell in this game, the relationship fell apart, with both characters parting ways. Imagine my shock when Alex, pitching the game to the crowd, explained that when the tower falls, "THEY DO IT!" I was very confused, but still curious to see how this all fell together. So I sat down, I got a partner (through a pretty cool pairing process that would be too much of a tangent to discuss here), and we started on character creation, with demoers from Bully Pulpit on hand to walk us through the game as we went along.

We got nametag stickers with a huge variety of character concepts on them, but my partner and I shopped around and settled on some fairly vanilla ones: a smooth space grifter resupplying at a space station, and a tough farmgirl exploring the urban life aboard the very same space station. We started fleshing these characters out following a very simple outline of prompts, defining the attractive features of our characters (including one that we didn't realize, but that the other character found attractive!) and outlining the key reason why our characters couldn't be together. We decided that the grifter was commitment-averse, while the farmgirl was over-committed and constantly busy, wrapped up in enjoying cosmopolitan life. And then we began to fashion the story.

I was already intrigued by the setup we'd crafted, by the fact that two-thirds of my character's attractive features were actually defined by my partner, things she didn't realize were attractive. There was a give-and-take element there, a collaboration, and that broke the ice on this relationship dynamic and on the dynamic between the two of us. What I really didn't expect, though, was that a shockingly brilliant set of mechanics began to unfold itself as I read down the character sheet.

The Rules of Love

There's this moment when I sit down and dig into a really good game (whether it's roleplaying or otherwise), where I'm overwhelmed by the sense that yes, it truly is a brilliant design. Not because I have low expectations of it, but because I never realized that any game was capable of being that well put-together. You'd think that it would stop surprising me at some point, but the epiphany always seems to come from a fresh angle. It's a sense of delightful discovery where I see what the implications of the rules are, and it all "clicks". Which is strangely apropos for a game about romance.

It starts with the basic mechanics: players take turns engaging in actions, back and forth. Some actions (doing something, adding a detail to the setting) don't have any specific costs, but other actions (specifically, revealing something about yourself or initiating physical contact between the characters) ask you to pull a block from the tower. This made sense: crossing the line into developing intimacy causes the tower to get less stable because the characters are getting closer to acting on their mutual attraction. So far, so good, it's a nice emulation. And then came a very simple twist that I didn't see coming: when you end the game, the epilogue depends on how many blocks you pulled. If you pulled a lot of blocks, the ending turns out happy for the couple, and the relationship persists! If you didn't pull a lot of blocks, the relationship fizzles out.

So, follow this logic.

  1. To get a happier ending, you need to pull blocks
  2. You can choose how much your character leans into intimacy
  3. The more your character leans into intimacy, the more blocks you pull
  4. The more blocks you pull, the harder it is to keep the tower stable (ending the game immediately)
  5. To get a happier ending, you have to play bold and risky

That was the flash of brilliance. I suddenly saw, in one moment, the core tension of the game encapsulated. It was a game that pushed you to be risky, but it also visualized that risk for you, showing you an increasingly unsteady tower. And you don't have to push into that, but it'll lower the tension, and therefore lower the chance that the relationship stays. In order for the relationship to stick, you have to invest in it through small moments of growing intimacy. I do not have words for how cleverly multi-dimensional that is. It's true to life while also being dramatic and exciting, and the slow build-up of connection between the characters resonates more than anything.

As an added bonus? There's an extra little rule that your character can give a short line of dialogue. If you touch the tower while you're delivering the dialogue. That's right: every line of spoken dialogue between characters is fraught with the potential of knocking over the tower. Let me tell you, it's harrowing to hold the tower in your hand as you talk, and the fear of knocking it over drives you to keep dialogue short and sweet, or non-extant! In play, it led to scenes of meaningful looks, awkward silences, cuts to scenic details, anything to avoid that scary direct connection. It was brilliant.

Tower of Terror

Okay, but what's so scary about the tower falling, anyhow? That, I think, is the brilliant paradox at the core of Star-Crossed: we want the tower to fall, but we also totally don't want the tower to fall, at least not before it's time. But how does that make sense? How can we want these two contradictory things? On the surface, there's aspects of this that are easy to explain. For one, there's a psychological fear of failure--if the tower falls on our watch, it feels like we failed to keep it upright, because the game builds its action around "keep the tower up". There's the framing of pulls as costs: the game tells us that making a pull is paying a price, so we feel that making the tower unstable is a bad thing. There's the legitimate "fail state" in the game--if you haven't pushed the envelope enough, the relationship will fizzle after the couple gets together! All of that adds up to this nagging feeling that you need to play chicken and keep the tower up as long as possible. Some of that's pragmatic, some of it's psychological, but it all adds up.

And yet we want the tower to fall eventually! That's what we're rooting for, after all. In a sense, it seems like the fictional incentives are at odds with the mechanics!'s actually more complicated. Because romance isn't simple, especially not romantic DRAMA. When it comes to these stories, many viewers want to see the relationship drawn out instead of being immediately resolved! While I'd love to see more romance stories that focused on the long-term relationship, a huge appeal of romantic comedies/dramas is that tension of whether that perfectly mismatched couple will actually stick together. We want them to get together in the end...but we also don't want them to do it yet. We want to see the release of that pent-up romantic tension, but it's also so, so delicious to watch it build up, to see them get so close and then shy away, to get frustrated but also excited at the anticipation of them finally figuring it out. It's that paradox of "I want them to get together...but maybe not yet" that drives the energy of a romantic drama!

I also think there's a profound kernel of real-world truth in this as well. During Star-Crossed, the choice to push forwards, to risk the tower falling, is always in the hands of the players. You could hit a point where you back off, where you stop pushing for moves that make pulls, because you're scared of something flaring up and then fading away. You're scared of failing at the relationship, and there is a safety valve there. You can always walk away. The question "what if it doesn't work out?" can be scarier than the question "but what if it does?" And that, to me, was the genius of the design. Every time you take an action that brings you closer to the other character, you commit to taking that risk, to giving it a try, to taking a leap of faith, because, well, sometimes these things work out.

"What if it does?" is the scariest question, but it's also the question with the most power, and above all else, Star-Crossed is a beautiful encapsulation of that anxiety but also the relief when it turns out that everything's going to be okay.

The Game At the Booth

So what happened, back at Origins? I turned back, thinking on all of this, back to the Bully Pulpit booth. One final copy. I thought of everything that the game had shown me, the sheer brilliance I had witnessed, the power of the romance I'd helped to shape. I thought of the way that we built the tower, pushing the envelope, the way that we spent scene after scene making impossible pulls from the tower, far beyond what anyone expected was possible. Everyone watching was on tenterhooks as they watched our story near its climax, and at the last possible moment, in the final scene, it fell. I thought on this, and I realized--there was no question about it. I'd fallen for this game, and I had to go back.

I turned, heading back through the hall, my pace picking up as I came within sight of it. Nothing else was on my mind, I'd made my decision. I counted the numbers of the exhibit hall until I got to the 900s row. I saw the booth, I saw the staff. And the game was nowhere in sight. By a delay of mere minutes, it had slipped out of my grasp, and I went on my way with a grim determination not to let the next opportunity pass me by. Which, in its own way, was rather fitting.

Myself and the game, perfectly Star-Crossed.


  1. Fantastic writeup! You encapsulate some of the magic so very well.

    The first time I played this was at Big Bad Con a few years back in 2017 (I write about it here: It's called "Tension" in that article because that was the working title for the game, back then.)

    I even got to run Space Station Fobolex at Strategicon Gamex 2019, a few months ago, and as the facilitator it was equally fantastic and fun to watch our various tables interact.

    As a fellow participant at Origins, I was in the same room as you. I couldn't pass up this opportunity to play again. One thing I really love about the Space Station Fobolex variant (other than " SPACE", which is always a draw), is the way we use the room as a grid to match people to each other based on tone. Everyone stands on one axis that represents Serious vs Silly, and on another axis that is Intimate vs Wholesome. It's such a clever move given you are about to play romance game.

    And play I did... Her: A lonely space emperor. Me: A Parasitic brain parasite. I think we were the last ones done, and our tower did not fall... a tragic ending where we didn't act on our feelings. It was perfect.

    1. I forget what LARP Alex said that technique was borrowed from, but I really liked it! It's a very efficient way to sort out two incredibly important tone elements in the game.

      I loved seeing all the different outcomes, including the really tense and dramatic game across our table, where they held hands and jointly chose to knock over the tower.