The Unhinged Quartet and the Crystalline Honey Scepter

I ran a game of Honey Heist for the first time last weekend. It hadn’t even played it before but my players were demanding it (I mean, we were all excited by the idea of playing it, so it wasn’t some one-sided thing) and the two times I’d seen it played (once on Critical Role and once as a live-show by The Adventure Zone with special guest Eriak Ishii) gave me enough confidence in its simplicity that I decided to run it. Plus, this was going to be the first thing my new Sunday group played together and I wanted something with very little preamble so we’d all be awkwardly uncomfortable together. Since this was one of those games meant to be picked up and played in a single play session, the only prep work I did was buy the game, read through it once, and then come up with a pun for the heist.

As the players made their characters, I rolled on the various scenario tables provided in this excellent one-page RPG (techincally two if you count the GM tables which aren’t necessary for play) and spun up a scenario as I went. “Madame Beesaud’s Wax Museum” featuring the “Crystalline Honey Scepter” was eventually built up into an elaborate heist featuring security gaurds armed with tranquilizer guns, a complex CCTV system, live bears as part of the entertainment, honey-coated decor, and a figure I described as “Lady Gaga-esque but with honey.” Everything else beyond those data points I made up as I went along using my in-depth knowledge of the heist-movie genre, my player’s excellent character creation skills, and just enough prompts to get most of my players asking the right questions to flesh out this scene.

If you’d told me that was all I was going to need to create one of the most memorable hour and half tabletop gaming experiences of my life, I’d have probably nodded politely while cussing you out in my head considering I’d spent the entire day prior to the game fretting about how I was going to make it happen since there is aboslutely no structure provided for how a heist should play out. The game has a simple pass or fail mechanic, two stats that fluctuate based on passes or failures, and a system clearly designed to end every heist in a spectacular and hilarious disaster. And tons of costume and bear suggestions for creating your characters, of course. It is not a great system for someone who struggles to put something together without any amount of structure to build off. I have, for most of my life, been such a person. I’ve always struggled to improvise without leaning heavily on something I know well and the only reason I was able to do that for D&D over my years as a DM was by making sure I knew the game well enough to improvise within its realm.

Turns out I’ve grown. What a surprise. All of that listening to actual-play podcasts featuring improvisation and shared storytelling games over the last couple years has actually taught me something useful. Plus all of my own writing and movement away from the more stilted, pre-planned story beats of my old Dungeons and Dragons games towardzs a more “reflecting the players actions in real time” style of storytelling has given me plenty of practice. It also helped, once I settled in to run the game and stopped fretting, that my most memorable tabletop gaming experience prior to this game was the D&D game I’d run about forty-eight hours prior where I eventually entirely abandoned everything I’d prepared and the rules of D&D itself in order to respect the fiction as we’d established it during a dead-world moment with two of my players. Something else I’d entirely improvised in the moment when one of the players took an action I didn’t expect but that had interesting narrative implications given the way we’d talked about their character’s relationship with their powerful, partially sentient magic item.

Turns out, I am actually pretty good at this, thanks to all of that practice and the excellent examples I’ve had of how to ask the right questions. It also definitely helps that both groups are full of creative, expressive people who aren’t afraid to push the boundaries and try something new or daring. Sunday night’s game of Honey Heist went off in spectacular fashion, starting with the coincidence that all of the players rolled “unhinged” as the description of their bear, passing through a bear doing muscle-based seduction, reaching a high with the introduction of a rival team of thieving bears that I’d been hiding in plain sight the entire time, and then blowing past that high point with the introduction of a river following one of the players betraying the party right when doing so would result in the players failing the heist only for their bear to be tackled out a window into the newly introduce river by a polar bear which brough the game to a conclusion with a tumble over a waterfall and an ambiguous final shot showing an unknown bear grabbing the prize in a way that firmly established there would definitely be a sequel to this game.

Honestly, even that belabored, overly-detailed sentence doesn’t do it justify. I wish I’d recorded the entire game because, with the right editing, it would make for an amaing hour-long audio drama. What a great experience that was. My players were all clever and inventive, I got to pull of a twist by building off details they’d established, and we all laughed so much that the game took almost two hours instead of one. It was one of those moments that made me realize and appreciate the group I’d brought together. I’ve been confident that they’ll all get along, but I knew that they’d need some time to adjust to each other. With this single game of Honey Heist, I think they all see the strength and potential of this group in the same way I do. I can’t wait to keep playing games with these people!

Tabletop Highlights: Exploding Kittens

I’m a huge fan of The Oatmeal. His comics are wonderful, he tackles some very difficult ideas in his stories, and he helps create wonderful games. I’ve been following him for a few years and have really enjoyed most of what he’s created. When I heard that he was doing the art for a tabletop game and had helped create it, I immediately ran to Kickstarter to check it out. True to form, the Kickstarter for Exploding Kittens was chock full of The Oatmeal’s particular art, wonderfully depicting all kinds of ways cats could accidentally blow you up through cat-like behavior.

Eventually, I backed it. I got the full edition of the game along with the hilarious (and very) NSFW version of the game. Since then, I’ve stayed up to date on the game. They eventually created an expansion called “Imploding Kittens” and another game called “Bears vs. Babies” which was not quite as fun and charming as Exploding Kittens.

In Exploding Kittens, the object of the game is to be the last player left alive. There is a deck of cards that everyone draws from at the end of their turn. If they draw an exploding kitten, they die unless they can play a diffuse card (like a laser pointer or kitten therapy). Before you draw, you can plan any number of other cards to do things like skip your turn, give your turn to another player (forcing them to take two turns), steal another player’s cards, or look at the top three cards on the deck.

Once you’re out of usable cards and you draw an exploding kitten, you’re out. Don’t worry, though, it wasn’t personal. The cat was just walking on a computer console that just happened to have a nuclear launch button on it or they were playing with a hand grenade and accidentally pulled the pin while tossing it around. I’m going to avoid going into the NSFW cards because that’s not something I want to write about on this blog, but I encourage the interested parties to check it out.

The game is a ton of fun when you’re having a game night with your friends and it only gets more fun if you’re drinking a little. Don’t drink too much, though. The game is a little more complicated and strategic than you’d expect, so too much alcohol is just going to make it easier for your friends to set you up for an explosion. Which is exactly what you should be trying to do, since you can place the exploding kitten wherever you like in the deck if you play your cards right.

The biggest downside to the game is that it can really drag on for a long time if there aren’t very many players. The game has instructions on how to tailor the game to the number of players, but I’ve followed the instructions with a small group before and wound up sitting around for almost half an hour while the last two players tried to end the game. Even in larger groups, where people get eliminated faster, the first player out can wind up spending a lot of time waiting if they were just incredibly unlucky. You can always cut the deck down for smaller groups, of course, but that can be difficult to get right as some cards only work when paired with similar cards.

Either way, as long as everyone’s relaxed and participating, the game is ridiculous amounts of fun. If you want a new game that will last around an average of 15 minutes per game, I suggest picking up Exploding Kittens.