By the Author of Lady Windermere's Fan is a role-playing game. Specifically, it's what I'd call a "story game": a GM-less, narrative-focused, one-shot sort of RPG. You and two to four of your friends can come together without any prior preparation, and use the rules in this book to create a story over the course of three or four hours. You provide the imagination, you control the action, you make characters do ridiculous things... meanwhile, the rules guide what happens, to ensure that the story you create is compelling, consistent, and complete by the end of the night.
The story you'll be telling is an Oscar Wilde pastiche. It's a farce in the vein of The Importance of Being Earnest or An Ideal Husband. That means it's a comedy about self-important people who get into embarrassing situations. The rules of the game are there to promote this tone; the story can't advance until your characters have made lots of avoidable trouble for themselves, and it can't end until you've been exposed as the frauds you are and received the happy ending you don't really deserve.
But the story you'll be telling is also about putting on a play. A play you haven't prepared to put on. That means rules to enforce a frenetic pace, to ensure that nobody knows what's going to happen next, and to make sure there is chaos that you are going to have to weave into the narrative.
It's a story game about desperate improvisation and egregious theatricality.
In By the Author of Lady Windermere’s Fan, the audience is already filing into their seats by the time you actors realize that you’ve got to put on a play. There’s no time to prepare a plot in advance, so you’re just going to have to make it up with what you already have on hand.
Hastily-Assembled Settings: The first step of setup is to have all the players secretly write down some sets, without any sort of initial discussion. That way, you wind up with an eclectic collection of possible locations for the acts of the play. It takes three sets to make a play, so you’re going to have to match up these sets into a plausible setting. How do you create a plausible story out of the deck of a pirate ship, a gladiatorial arena, and the surface of the moon? I certainly don’t know, but it sounds like a play I’d want to watch.
Deeply-Flawed Characters: If you’ve played story games like Fiasco or Kingdom, you will be broadly familiar with the character creation process here: you’ll come up with a character who makes sense in the setting you made, give the character some motivations to define them, and establish relationships between your character and your neighbors’. Most importantly, though, you’ll come up with your character’s Lie. This is the falsehood on which they’ve based their reputation, their livelihood, their very existence. Maybe you’re pretending to be a Duke. Maybe you’ve claimed that you were once a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera. Maybe that story you like to tell about climbing Mount Everest is a complete work of fiction. Regardless of the specific nature of the Lie, it’s become a cornerstone of your character's entire life.
A good Lie is big, impressive, and easily disprovable… it’s the unstable tower upon which your world has been built, and as soon as the play starts, that towers will be nudged until it collapses. It’s a Wilde play, so everyone is lying, and every lie will be exposed by the final curtain.
Broken Legs: Once all the setup business is over with, it’s time to act! Here, things get up to a breakneck pace. There’s no pausing between scenes. There’s no pausing to think about what you want to say. Pausing to breathe is gently frowned upon, but we’ll allow it because we don’t actually want you to pass out. During each act, your characters will bounce off of one another, trade witty one-liners as quickly as you can think of them, and confront one another’s Lies. Usually that doesn’t mean a direct confrontation, but putting the other characters into a position where their Lie is especially unstable. Characters will be forced into situations when the only logical course of action is to admit that they’ve been lying for some time, take their licks, and continue their lives with as much honor as they can muster.
And because this is a Wilde play, nobody will take the logical course of action. Instead, they’ll cover for themselves by spinning a new Lie: bigger, grander, even more easily disprovable than the first. And of course, this next Lie will get confronted as well, and needs to be replaced with an even larger one, all the way to Act III when everything collapses, the truth is exposed, and (because this is an Oscar Wilde farce) everyone somehow ends up with a happy ending they don’t really deserve.
The Harshest Critics: Along the way, you’ll also be contending with the limitations of being an actor on stage. If it makes sense for an NPC to show up, that means someone else has to excuse themselves to change their costumes. You’ve only got a handful of props prepared, and if you need something else you’ll have to wait until intermission to drag it out of the prop closet. If you super need to pee, you can excuse yourself, but everyone else is gonna have to keep vamping until you get back. And if you get lost, call someone by the wrong name, change your accent in the middle of a sentence or otherwise break character, the audience is going to get upset. You’ll have a handful of tokens in front of you to represent the audience’s favor. When you screw up, you lose one.
But when you’re funny (as decided by the other players at the table), you gain a token. This is a comedy, after all, so the audience will forgive a lot if they're laughing. Collecting audience favor tokens isn't really a competition… but after the final curtain, whomever has the most tokens is the audience’s favorite, gets to take the final bow, and has the honor of giving a title to the play you've just cobbled together.
Oscar Wilde’s plays were generally about the upper classes of Victorian England and the embarrassing situations they would find themselves embroiled in because they thought it was somehow easier to maintain a false identity than to have a five-minute-long talk about feelings. But the story you tell doesn’t need to be constrained to London’s sitting rooms and tea houses. It’s supposed to be one of Wilde’s lesser-known plays, after all, and who’s to say he didn’t get experimental from time to time? When you’re coming up with a set, feel free to go as fantastical, historical, or futuristic as you dare.
What matters isn’t the trappings of Victorian London or high society as Wilde would have experienced it, but the fact that the characters are, you know, kind of awful. Self-interested if not outright selfish, overly-concerned with their image and their status, and of course entirely willing to lie straight into the faces of those around them in order to avoid even a moment’s awkward honesty. So… you know… people. And that means you can set a play just about anywhere.
- A combative group of small-business owners in Las Vegas, each convinced that their shoddy, failing theme restaurant is about to go big.
- An group of aliens on an observation mission in 1930s Hollywood, recently discovered by an aspiring starlet.
- The local government of a quaint seaside village, endeavoring to get rid of a giant beached whale before the Summer Fair.
- Incompetent pirates, trying to track down an immense treasure haul that probably never existed in the first place.
- A group of cats (in costumes left over from a production of Cats) doing, you know, silly cat things.
… any setting can make for a farce, so long as you fill it with ridiculous people doing ridiculous things.
Of course you can! Thanks the the beautiful people of the Gamerati, I was able to live-stream a game of By the Author of Lady Windermere's Fan.The vagaries of putting on a play while the participants are in different states, countries, and even hemispheres have rendered the game especially chaotic. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
(My thanks to Burnt, Rob, Jack, and especially our host Mike for being willing performers in this escapade.)
My goal here is simple: print out the game and get it into the hands of anybody and everybody who is interested. By the Author of Lady Windermere's Fan is a largely finished document; while there may be a little bit of prodding and tightening of text left to do, or a few more images to add or adjust, the actual rules are feature complete. All that's left is to put words on paper. That’s where you come in, Kickstarter backers.
My initial funding goal is a modest $1600, which roughly puts me at my break even point: this is where I'd have enough to print a hundred books, send copies to every backer, and still recoup the money I’ve already spent my proofreading and editing expenses. Anything on top of that is just gravy.
The game has been made, played, and re-made again many times. In fact, backers will be granted immediate access to a current draft version of By the Author of Lady Windermere’s Fan. It's not as exciting as the final PDF, lacking in images and bonus materials and that certain je ne sais quoi of a finished product, but has the decided advantage of being playable this very minute, if you are so interested.
If you back at the Ideal Reward Tier level or higher, you will be sent a physical version of the book. It’s going to handsome 6x9 softcover, approximately 126 pages, whose black-and-white illustrations all come from authentic Victorian-era etchings from novels, advertisements, and even the occasional playbill.
The book contains all the rules you will need to run the game; all you need to supply are some index cards, some tokens, and the will to succeed against all odds.
Shipping is free within the United States; those in parts distant must add $10 to the price to accommodate international shipping. I'm no happier about this than you are, I can assure you.
In addition to the rules for creating a play of your very own, By the Author of Lady Windermere's Fan comes with a set of Playbills, pre-generated settings and characters you can use as the backbone of your play, rather than creating a setting from scratch.
The draft version includes A Theatrical Engagement, a play about social-climbing theatre goers. The full version will hold four more playbills, about humble bakers who find a dead duke in their dining room, incompetent vampires, magical scholars, or space travelers on a long and profoundly dull mission. The plays will still be roiling chaos as soon as the curtain opens, but with playbills in hand setup will take only a few minutes, getting you into the action even faster.
Of course there are stretch goals! What sort of Oscar Wilde enthusiast would I be if I didn't want there to be more of everything?
- $1600 (ACHIEVED!): This is the goal that matters most... if this campaign reaches $1600, I can afford to print the books and ship them to you beautiful people. And it did! And I can! And I will!
- $2200 (ACHIEVED!): Actor Archetypes! These are discussed in more detail in Update 4, but in brief, if this campaign reaches $2200, the book will gain, in addition to its core rules and playbills, an optional rule overlay that gives the actors more character. That is to say, prior to setting up the play you're going to perform, you may select what kind of actor you'll be from the group of eight archetypes (such as the Star, the Thespian, the Up-And-Comer, or the Hack). Your choice will influence how you perform during the play, and provide a heady base for backstage drama during setup and intermissions.
- $3000 (ACHIEVED!): Additional playbills! If we hit this stretch goal, I will craft an additional three playbills for the book, bringing the total to eight: enough for an entire theatrical season! Furthermore, because you lot are a part of this process now, you'll be given the opportunity to submit ideas for these plays, and later vote for your favorites.
- $3500 (ACHIEVED!): Better paper! Listen, this one might not sound exciting on paper, as it were, but if we reach this goal, the book will jump from being printed on 89 GSM stock to 118 GSM stock. I'm not mathematician, but that's 29 more GSMs! Which, if you're not a paper nerd, roughly means going from a paper grade roughly equivalent to what's in your printer right now to something presentation quality. The book will be thicker, more durable, and simply feel better in your hands.
- $3700 (ACHIEVED): Ed buys a sweet-ass calligraphy pen and does all of his book signing for Backers in Earnest and Backers as Ernest with mad swooshes and curlicues and whatnot.
About the Auteur
Risks and challenges
The most obvious risk is that this is my first Kickstarter, and I am diving head-on into all the challenges inherent in that.
Mitigating some of that is the fact that the book is already done; you can get a draft copy immediately if you so desire, and while there will most likely be final tweaks, the text is largely complete and ready to ship. All this campaign is intended to do is finance a print run of the game. To that end, I have already selected a printing company, one which has a history of working with successful Kickstarter-funded RPG projects, as well as a fulfillment service, should my shipping needs exceed my expectations. Whether my expectations shall be exceeded is entirely up to you, dear reader.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)