Feeping Crictionism

posted by hyphz Original SA post

Feeping Crictionism

Once upon a time, there was a war; and there was an Maker, who made puppets. And the terrible things that were happening in the real world made the Maker sad, so he built Maker's Land, where all the puppets he made could live in peace without bother from any humans.

And they did so, quite happily, until one of the puppets - Punch - went to the Maker, beat him to death with a hammer and skinned his face.

Yea, it's one of those games. (And yes, also, I know - no more drugs for that puppet.)

Now, Punch rules Puppetland with an iron fist and all puppets toil for his pleasure.. or, almost all. Judy, who used to love Punch but funnily enough had a bit of a falling out with him when he sawed a guy's face off, has founded a distant community called Respite where she tries to rescue puppets from Punch. She's also collected, in a silver thimble, the last tear the Maker cried when he was killed; and she believes that by using it, she can bring the Maker back to life.

This is the base setting of Puppetland, an incredibly freeform game but with very some distinctive rules; it's telling that no version of Puppetland has ever called itself a "roleplaying game", only a "story telling game", and that's something when the first version was written in 1995, when a storytelling game basically meant having no rules at all. Since the rules are so light there's not a whole lot to look at in them, but what I'm more interested in is the evolution of the setting.

See, there's three versions of Puppetland. The original 1995 version which was a web page (and you can still read: http://johntynes.com/revland2000/rl_puppetland_www.html), a printed version from Hogshead Publishing in 1999 which expanded the setting, and an even more expanded third version funded through Kickstarter and published through Arc Dream Publishing in 2016. The changes to the rules are very few; the changes to the setting are significant, especially in the case of the third version, which threw in a bunch of additional sample adventures by other authors.

Unfortunately, these expansions were not always to the good. There's a term in software development called Feeping Creaturism, an intentional spoonerism of "Creeping Featurism", describing the constant demands over time for more and more features to be added to a piece of software resulting in the source code becoming an unmaintainable monster (ie, "a feeping creature"). And Puppetland is the best example I've found of the same thing happening with a setting. Although the expansions were relatively few - there's certainly no masses of supplements for it - they do have the effect of making the setting more and more confusing and harder to work with. And this is especially curious, because of the author: John Tynes.

Yes. Unknown Armies John Tynes; one of the main authors of a brilliant game where a lot of the brilliance is exactly in the consistency and flavor of the setting. The third version of Puppetland includes a sort of mini-biography of the author in the context of the game, which mentions that he retired from RPG design to be a game designer at Microsoft; it's a rather sad indictment of the industry that the author of Unknown Armies considered it a positive career move to move to working on South Park Let's Go Tower Defence Play.

While I'm going to point out some things I don't like, I don't really consider Puppetland a bad game. It's not one I would play and its near-total absence of rules is probably obsolete even for a storytelling game by modern standards, but it's at least 100% clear about what it is, and the rules it does have still create a distinctive playstyle. And the setting, for all the glitches introduced as it expanded, is a very appealing one. In fact, the original version's movie rights were for the setting were apparently purchased.. by the same group as the D&D movie! (Although they apparently wanted to get rid of the bit about skinning a dude's face.)

The game system

The system's very simple, so let's look at it first. It revolves around a few overarching rules that have hardly changed across the three versions. A puppet is defined by three lists: "this puppet is," "this puppet can," and "this puppet can't." To make your character, you choose one of four types of puppet - finger, hand, shadow, or marionette; fill in a standard starting template for those lists based on that type, and then add three more items to each list.

The templates are almost the same in the three versions, as are the rules for the lists. The only big difference is that the third version changes the "is.." list so that it must contain five values which are explicitly quantified using terms listed on a sliding scale in the rulebook, rather than just freeform descriptions as in the first two versions. In other words, it kind of adds stats to the game through the back door. These are Height, Build, Weight, Speed, and Strength, and the quantified descriptors are pretty obvious given those, except that for some reason it uses the older version of the word "quite" - where it means "very", instead of the more common modern usage where it means "kinda" - so that a puppet who is "quite strong" is stronger than one who's just "strong".

Also, since these are almost unchanged in the later versions from the first version and the first version is freely available, I can just copy and paste these. Whee!

Finger Puppets are: short and small (3: slender), light, quick (3: quite fast), and weak. They can: move quickly, dodge things thrown at them even if they only see them coming at the last moment, and move very quietly. They can not: kick things, throw things or grab things because they have no legs or arms. This is the same in all three versions except the third, which leaves "move quickly" out of the "can" list, presumably because it's already implied by "quite fast" (which is the highest possible speed)

Hand Puppets are: medium size (3: medium height, medium build), sort of heavy (2/3: quite heavy - which remember, in 3, is the heaviest you can be because of the redefined "quite"; it doesn't have that meaning in 2, so this might be a mistake), not very fast (3: medium speed), sort of strong (3: strong). They can: move at a normal pace, dodge things thrown at them if they see them coming as soon as they are thrown, throw things, grab things, hit things weakly, and move quietly if they are lucky and careful. They can not: kick things (because they have no legs), move quicker than a finger puppet, or move quieter than a finger puppet. The third version takes out all the references to "moving at a normal pace" and "moving quicker than a finger puppet", letting the "medium speed" say that; it also removes the "weakly" qualifier from "hit things".

Shadow Puppets are: tall, thin (3: quite slender), light (3: quite light), quick (3: fast), and weak (3: quite weak). They can: move quickly; dodge things thrown at them by turning sideways (and versions 2 and 3 add "even at the last moment"); kick things, throw things, and grab things; and become invisible if they are careful and cautious. They can not: kick, throw, or grab things that weigh more than a piece of paper; be invisible if they aren't trying; be invisible to more than one puppet at a time; or get wet because getting completely wet kills them. Versions 2 and 3 move the "can't be invisible to more than one at a time" text into the "can" text for being invisible (ie, making it "become invisible to one puppet..") and clarify that it's done by the shadow puppet keeping its flat edge towards them at all times. As traditional, version 3 also drops the "move quickly" bit.

Marionettes are: tall (3: quite tall), stocky, heavy, slow, and strong (3: quite strong). They can: move slowly; kick, throw, or grab things as heavy as they are; and hit things very hard. They cannot: dodge things thrown at them, or move very quickly. Version 3 drops the "move slowly" and "cannot move very quickly" as with the other types; it also drops "as heavy as they are" from the description of what the puppet can move.

So, the point of the "is" section is to deal with comparisons between puppets; if there's a race, the one described as being faster wins. However, the player is allowed to add three completely new adjectives to the "is" section provided they don't contradict each other and they aren't "can"s wearing whiskers. The point of the "can't" section is to list, well, what the puppet can't do. Well, actually, that is not true. A puppet can do something that's in their can't section, but they take a point of damage if they do. Trust me - in this game that is a much, much bigger deal than it sounds.

And the "can" section.. well.. um, it kinda doesn't do anything? I guess it's just meant to be suggestions, which is fine for the templates, but not so valuable when made up by the player themselves. We don't get any guidelines on what abilities need to be in the "can" section to be available to a puppet, other than that most puppets can't do magic, or if they can it ought to fit correctly into the story style and be reasonably limited.

And that's it. That's all the resolution rules in the game. Literally everything else is GM fiat. But we haven't covered the three most important rules, which are nothing to do with resolution.

First: an hour is golden but it is not an hour. A session of Puppetland always last exactly one hour, and then ends. At the start of the next session, all the PC puppets reset; any visible wounds are healed, and they wake up at home in their beds, even if they were captured or trapped last session. The puppets know this, and are aware of how much time they have left; this doesn't apply to other puppets, and Punch isn't aware of it - but he can become aware of it, and learn that locking the puppet's home is much more effective than throwing them in jail. The "but it is not an hour" is meant to emphasise that it means an hour real time, in other words an hour spent telling the story; any amount of time can pass in Puppetland.

The third version, however, makes a big change (or maybe it's a clarification? I'm not sure). In the first and second versions it's only mentioned that a given "tale" can last at most an hour. The third version quantifies more precisely what a "tale" is and makes it clear that it's an adventure, not just a session - in other words, the puppets have one hour of real time to resolve the adventure, or it terminates with an actual loss for them; the third version specifically identifies the "ante" as something to be decided when writing the adventure up. Depending on if this was the intended interpretation all along or not, this massively transforms the experience and is likely to force the PCs onto track - but also end up with the GM being forced to railroad if things go the wrong way.

The second rule: what you say is what you say. This indicates that the players are supposed to play entirely by speaking in-character as their puppet, with no OOC dialogue at all allowed, and even with action descriptions conveyed by what the puppet says - ie, "I shall climb through that window!". We assume that the players will quickly pick up conventions for describing when they are acting and when their puppet is talking about potential future actions. The player can't ask the GM questions, but they can have their puppet say they are confused; if the GM needs an out-of-character dialog with a player, they can either take it away from the table or ask a question which the player answers by nodding or shaking their head. The text for this is identical in all three versions, but the third version adds some examples and suggests that puppet dialogue could be used to create narrative prompts as well; for example, saying "Oh, if only someone would help us!"; or saying "Give me that!" rather than "So I shall snatch it from him!" which allows the GM to determine how the puppet tries, and possibly succeeds, at claiming whatever it is.

The third rule: the tale grows in the telling and is being told to someone not present. This is really just a summary of the previous style, and a note saying that the GM shouldn't railroad the players, as "the tale [they have] in mind [..] may not be the one that ends up being told". This is again identical in all three versions, although the time limit and ante system in the third version seems to limit the extent to which this could happen.

Finally, Doom. As well as coming up with your character sheet, every player also has to draw their puppet on an area of the sheet which is divided into 16 jigsaw pieces. The drawing is intended to be scaled with others (but only the third version actually gives explicit sizes for how big each puppet type should be drawn). Physical damage done to puppets doesn't have an instant effect; dings and scratches and worse are just kind of described as part of the story and heal when the puppets are reset. But if something much worse happens, like the puppet having an arm torn off and eaten, they might take a point of damage. As mentioned above, they can also take a point of damage to do something they're not supposed to be able to do (ie, that's on their "can't" list).

Each point of damage is one jigsaw piece crossed off. Damage never resets and never heals. When all 16 are gone, the puppet is doomed, and will die forever at the end of the session. Again, the puppet knows this, and can decide to sacrifice themselves if they want, although the game does advise maintaining the storybook tone by not having the puppets openly declare their existential dread.

Well, that's what happens in the first and second versions anyway. In the third version.. it's different. We'll get to that.

So, we have our very small system and our overarching plot. The only other thing we get in the first version is:

The Bad Guys

Punch. He's a big ol' marionette; he ripped off the Maker's face in order to put it over his own face, so that he could symbolically "be the new Maker", but now if it's removed he'll die. His "can't" list is interesting: he also can't "be happy" (except in the first version where he can't "feel emotions") or "tolerate disobedience". But there's an issue with his "can" list: he can "work magic". In the first version, there's a side note explaining that this mainly refers to his ability to make minions (see below), and that Punch shouldn't be tossing fireballs or anything. (Cue imagining "hadouken!" said in a swizzle voice.) The second version expands this a bit, but says the same thing and clarifies how PCs should do magic, and the third version uses the same text.. except that the sample adventures then bugger it up. The number one screw-up is to use "Punch's magic" as the excuse for why whatever thing the sample adventure introduces cannot be used to defeat Punch. At least one of them jumps the shark completely and lets Punch use his "magic" to polymorph living animals, which is way out of left field and would totally change the setting if correct.

The Boys. Punch didn't just make himself a mask out of the Maker's face; he made some puppets, too. No, we don't know why Punch thought that it would work to make puppets out of the Maker's skin, but apparently it did. There are six of Punch's Boys, who appear in all versions, largely unaltered:

Spite is a jealous bully who mains any puppet he feels is trying to be better-looking or more popular than him. He's the same in every version apart from a few wording changes to allow for the "is" rules, and for some bizarre reason he can't kick things in the third version.

Haunt can detect any desire to betray or take vengeance against Punch, and then float around in circles around the area, gradually tightening his circle until he identifies the specific puppet involved. He can't do anything to them - he specifically "can't hurt anyone" - but Punch and the other Boys know exactly what his circles mean.

Grief wanders around looking for any puppet that's visibly unhappy and then tears them in half. He's the same in every version except for the same weird "can't kick things anymore" deal with Spite. The second and third versions also add a rider - that since Punch can't be happy, he keeps Grief away from him. Grief wouldn't attack Punch - all the Boys have "can't betray Punch" on their description lines - but he might get upset and attack at random; and in the third version we're told "he might even turn himself inside-out and be destroyed".

Vengeance is a torturer. If a traitor gets caught and there's no hurry involved, Punch or one of the Boys will let Vengeance have at them. That's it.

Mayhem is yet another Boy who wanders around killing puppets, except that he does it completely at random. We never find out exactly why this is useful to Punch.

Silence, who was called Stealth in the first two versions but let's face it Silence is a much better name, is Punch's spy. His unique ability is that the flap of flesh he was made from is a cloak which he can take off, leaving him invisible and silent - although he can't communicate with anyone, Punch included, until he puts the cloak back on, which does require him to go fetch it. One would think that Punch would be absolutely fascinated by his ability to make a puppet which can be alive without any material, but this is never explored further.

Finally, there's the Nutcrackers. They're red-suited soldiers with ratcheting jaws that are just great for chomping down on puppets, and they're Punch's actual visible police force. They're nowhere near as dangerous as the Boys, but they're much more visible and more likely to be encountered than them. Essentially, they're the bad guy mooks of the setting, and we don't really get a lot of explanation about where they came from.

There's no guidance for how these guys take damage, by the way. They don't have puzzle grids so it's all just more Fiat, other than the idea that defeating a Boy would probably constitute a "tale" and have to be done as an adventure on its own (and, in the third version, presumably within an hour).

Oh, and one more significant puppet, although not really a bad guy. Judy. She doesn't get any sheet at all in the first version, but she gets one in the second and third. She's another Marionette. Her quantified "is" values are the same as Punch's, and she has some huge "can"s: "make handy things" and "revive the Maker". Unfortunately, she also has "can't hurt Punch directly", which - while it makes a certain amount of sense for her - sank in as a rule for far too many of the other "good" puppets introduced by the adventures in the third version.

The Setting

This is where the significant changes made in the second and third versions really come to light - and as I mentioned, it's also where Feeping Crictionism starts to strike, as it becomes apparent that Tynes wanted to significantly expand the original setting without necessarily integrating with what had been established before. Even things that were added in the second version end up being contradictory with the rest of the book on some occasions.

Let's take a look at that origin story. (In the first version, that's about all you get.)

In the first version of Puppetland, all we know is that the Maker is a human, is referred to as "he", that he "lived in Maker's Land", and that Punch snuck into "the Maker's house" in order to kill him in his sleep. To me, at least, this suggested a classic Christopher Robin kind of scenario in which there's an isolated world with its own rules and there's a single human living in it. That fits pretty well, and explains how Punch was able to kill the Maker, as well as how odd things - like the idea of the Maker being restored to life by a tear - can work; it's an isolated magical world. The Maker's actual body is described as having been "hidden by Punch" and a critical MacGuffin; and Judy has the Maker's Tear because she was there when Punch killed the Maker. The only suggestion about the actual physical nature of Puppetland is in an Q&A section:


Part of me thinks that Maker's World is actually a huge puppet stage/playland built by the Maker in the back of his shop, and that if a puppet cut through the felt sky backdrop and jumped out, he'd be in a dusty storeroom in an abandoned puppet store in a largely-deserted Jewish ghetto in Germany circa 1941.

(There's one for your next obscure RPG trivia contest: Puppetland was originally set during the Holocaust.)

The second version leaves a lot of this text there - although the Q&A section is gone - but adds a new section that describes the nature of Puppetland and makes the above suggestion canon. Puppetland is a massive diorama landscape on a table. It's also much bigger that previously implied: the first version says it's the size of a single human city scaled down for puppets, with Respite on the far side of a great lake, but the second version makes Puppetland "the size of a couple of football fields" by human scale. That's a hell of a table. It keeps the text about Punch "sneaking into the Maker's house to kill him in his sleep". It also keeps the text about Punch having hidden the Maker's body. Unfortunately, in the description of the diorama it throws in:


Punch slew the Maker beneath the table, where his body lies to this day.

We don't find out how Punch left Puppetland to kill the Maker, but we do find out how he got back - there's a shell castle in Puppetland which contains a trapdoor which the Maker poked his head through to watch and talk to the puppets. Punch ran through the trapdoor, declared the castle his, and then pushed the trapdoor shut - not realising he'd be unable to open it again because it only opens from the other side.

Whooops! Ok, we can buy the "Maker's house" bit - that just means that the Maker closed down the puppet shop, which is explicitly mentioned in the text, and built Maker's Land in his home - but we now need to know why the Maker was sleeping under the table. And why finding the Maker's Body is difficult when Judy, since she was there when the Maker was slain, presumably knows exactly where it is - under the table.

But more importantly, introducing the real world to the play space of Puppetland - by putting the Maker's body, a critical item, inside it - warps the whole feel of the game from horror-twisted storybook fantasy to bizarre vaguely horrific urban fantasy. It means there's actually a dude with a skinned face lying in the basement of some puppet shop. It means that somehow he can actually be brought back to life with one of his own tears. It makes us ask if the "Maker's magic" is actually magic in the real world. It means that if a puppet can break out of Maker's Land, it can also leave the puppet shop - and one of the third version's sample adventures has the PCs doing exactly that - and then we have to worry about what happens if someone sees an animated, talking puppet walking down the street.

Ironically, this would be good for integrating with Unknown Armies. But this isn't that game, so, yea, this is kind of awkward.

Also, because of the text being retained from first edition, there's still a story suggestion involving the PC puppets thinking that the Maker might be inside Punch's castle. Which now makes no sense at all - even if we can buy a Marionette dragging a real dead body around, the idea that Punch is so dumb that he decides to bring the body into Maker's Land in order to hide it from puppets is pretty hard to swallow.

The third version expands the backstory significantly. In fact, the backstory is presented in the third version in the style of a children's picture book, with story on one side and images on the other - and takes up a full 20 pages in the landscape artbook format, which is quite impressive when you consider that the second version was only 16 pages long in total.

First of all, we're told that Maker's Land is in the basement of the old puppet shop in a space which was previously a puppet theatre, abandoned when people stopped coming to watch the Maker's shows. We also see a picture of the Maker, who is an old craftsman as you'd probably expect by default. Also, we get a lot more detail about Punch. Punch was fascinated by the Maker because he saw him at the time he was created, and immediately became angry that he couldn't do the same things. Judy genuinely wanted to help him at the time.

First she made him his hammer so he could swing it around instead of punching random things when he was angry (and he promptly tested it by hitting Judy with it and knocking her unconscious, causing her to wake up later thinking how important it really must be to Punch that she help him, thus giving us uncomfortable commentary on domestic violence only magnified by the idea that the Maker made Judy explicitly to love Punch). Then she got him a sewing kit so he could try to make a puppet, which he did, but he couldn't bring it to life so he threw it out of the window. Then he thought he would try to work out if there was something else inside the puppets that let them come to life, so he found a random puppet on the street and dismembered him with a pair of scissors in order to make a new puppet out of the parts, which would presumably include the "something else". Which also didn't work.

And then Judy suggested going to see the Maker, so they cut a hole in the sky and went back to the Maker's workshop and Judy laid out a picnic while Punch asked the Maker to have the power to make puppets and make everyone do what he said. The Maker refused. Hammer time. Judy's heart broke, she gathered the tear and left, presumably leaving Punch to skin the Maker's face and return through the same hole he left by.

Ok, that's also pretty neat. We can even probably forgive the issue of whether or not the Maker saw Punch dismembering another puppet.

Except we forgot that the second version added that the sky of Puppetland is a giant piece of canvas on rollers which the Maker used to operate with a crank. It's always night since Punch rose to power because the Maker isn't around to turn the crank anymore. Puppets can touch the sky at the very edges or top of Maker's land. Thing is, it also stated explicitly that any attempt Punch has made to cut or burn the sky has failed, and that text is copied into the third version.. together with this backstory which explicitly states that Punch and Judy cut through the sky, no problem. I suppose you could try and argue that the Sky became tougher when the Maker died, but that makes absolutely no sense.

Also, it's worth remembering that thanks to this addition, in the third version, Punch's whole motivation for his actions was that he can't make living puppets. That's going to give us trouble later on.

So, we have our first classic example of feeping crictionism that is reproduced many times in games with metaplots or overarching plots: starting with a setting that's clearly built for that overarching plot, but then being obliged by the need for "expansion" to fill it with more and more options which are irrelevant to that plot, usually because the adventure or setting authors haven't got the bottle to assert explicitly how an overall campaign should progress. Thus in turn requiring that overarching plot to be either indefinitely postponed or impossible to directly act on in order for there to be any reason for the PCs to engage with anything else while keeping a reasonably thematic story.

There's a big clue to this: another issue with the focus on the Maker's body and its existence in the real world is that it implies that if the Maker is brought back to life he can just instantly stand up, grab Punch off the diorama table and chuck him in the wood chipper, which is probably not a great ending for a story with a Big Bad. Way back in the first version, in the Q&A section, Tynes openly admits that he never actually thought about how the Maker would be brought back to life or what would happen afterwards, because it never happened in his games.

I mean, there's nothing wrong with just using Puppetland as a standard setting, but if the players have signed up to play a game that's not just a storybook land but where rebellion against authority is a thing, they're.. going to be kind of disappointed that there's no support in any of the codified parts of the setting about how that rebellion is achieved.

Our second example of Feeping Crictionism comes from the description of Puppettown itself, and the fact that (as I mentioned before) the world is much bigger in the second and third version.

Puppetland technically refers to the area which Punch rules, which is just the main city of Puppettown and the surrounding area. In the first version, this was all there was apart from the lake and Respite, but the second and third add much more and clarify that the proper name for the entire world is "Maker's Land". The first version also didn't give any more detail than that on the town, but the later ones do: Puppettown is where most puppets live - around 500 puppets in the second and third versions (the first claims it could be "anything up to 1000"). They work regular jobs; they have regular shops, although they don't use money, they just take things and thank the shopkeeper; they don't digest anything, but they kind of pretend to have meals by sitting around looking at shiny candies, and they "starve" if they don't do that for a while; they don't drink, but they use water to clean themselves and play in; and they use candles only for lights, which never go out, so anything that needs lighting is just lit from another source.

(Oh, and if you're wondering "hey, doesn't that mean that the puppets don't actually use up their food?" Well, yes, yes, it does. This is actually explained, but not in this section - in the section on Respite, for some reason. They don't use up food, but they do get tired of it if they keep returning to the same food they "ate" previously.)

Can we spot the feeping crictionism issue here and how it's come about?

Well. Remember in the introduction we were told that "All of the puppets toil for hours on end making whatever Punch and his boys want"? (Text that has existed since the first version?)

So.. where's the twisted toy factories? Where's the clockwork slave-driving machines and the twisted chiming workday clocks a la Fisk? Where's the Nutcracker patrols and checkpoints? Why are literally none of the puppets ever mentioned in the book.. not a single one.. ever described as actually being forced to work for Punch?

Aha! The Dystopia That Is Not A Dystopia. We started with a dystopic setting with a single band of rebels - Respite - but then the need for expansion made there be more and more places and more and more highlighted characters. And obviously those highlighted characters need to have their freedom, otherwise they're not worth interacting with, so they have to be exceptions to the dystopia, and over time the exceptions pile up and pile up until it seems that Punch is really doing a pretty crap job. There's apparently now miles of landscape where puppets roam free and little reason why anyone in Puppettown doesn't just leave.

Punch's Castle looks over Puppettown. It only exists in the second version, where - as mentioned before - it used to be a empty shell prop castle that the Maker used to peek into Maker's Land until Punch used the trapdoor inside it to return after killing the Maker. He then ordered the other puppets to build an actual castle inside the shell. In the third version, some of the text is removed, in a rather odd combination. For example, the bit about the trapdoor is still there, but not about Punch coming through it, and especially not about Punch not being able to open it. Strangest of all, it mentions Punch forcing puppets to "fill the shell with rooms and halls.." even though the bit that actually described the castle as being an empty shell has been removed.

Also inside Punch's Castle is the Nutcracker Factory. This is where Punch forced puppets to build the Nutcrackers. Did you guess that this was added in the second version? Did you spot that in the third version, where Punch's whole motivation was made that he can't build living puppets without the Maker's skin, it then doesn't make sense for him to build a factory that churns out the things en masse? Did you guess that the text is copied in?

The Lake Of Milk And Cookies surrounds Puppettown; as the name implies, it's filled with milk (which never goes sour) and topped with floating chocolate-chip cookies. You can potentially Frogger your way over on the cookies if you catch them in the right alignment, but they aren't always in that alignment and they're not particularly safe to stand on. And yes, it's deep enough to drown in and absolutely possible to do so. There's s a rumor that there's a monster in the lake. There isn't - Punch started that rumor to keep people away from it - but apparently Punch has thought about building one, but can't, because he'd have to make it out of the Maker's flesh and that means killing one of the Boys.

Not, you know, using the nutcracker factory. This text was in the second version, so there's not even the update excuse. The third version adds the statement that this is because "Punch can't get to the Maker anymore". Which was true in the second version because of the trapdoor closing, but isn't true in the third version because thanks to the new origin story, he can now cut his own holes in the sky.

Respite is Judy's little rebel freehold. Not everyone likes it there, since it's basically just tents and water and they have to live on stolen food.

The Candy Cave is literally a dungeon crawl that the Maker left in Maker's Land for the puppets to play with. It's a deliberately made cave maze where the centre contains walls that grow candy. The Maker was originally going to build a new one after the puppets found it, but that plan was called off when he received a terminal overdose of hammer. Punch badly wants to find it because he thinks it might contain a) Judy, who would be hiding there because "she needs food, right?" (um, apparently she doesn't, or she just eats the cookies in the lake. Dumb Mr Punch) or b) an exit to the real world and/or something of the Maker's power he could corrupt. Again, this is copypasta into the third edition where Punch already worked out how to get to the real world.

Also, the cave infinitely sprouts candies from the walls, so it's now full and is getting too full, and the Maker isn't around to keep it in check. Works well in an isolated storybook setting. If we get the real world involved, we need to ask why there's an infinite food factory sitting in the Maker's house. (Ok, that's a bit harsh. I'll buy that it's just a mechanism with a big jar of candy attached that looks infinite at puppet scale.)

That's all there is new in the second version. The third version throws in Down Below. This is a strange, strange, addition.

Down Below is Puppet Hell. It's explicitly stated that puppets who lose all their pieces go to Puppet Hell and have to bang the drums and chant to amuse the Puppet Devil forever.

So, Tynes remembered that the Devil often appears in Punch and Judy shows and figured that he should show up in Puppetland too, which is cool. But then he integrated the devil into the setting in this way that's just bizarre, because it seems to imply that he forgot that Maker's Land was, you know, made by the Maker. The Maker who made it to save the puppets he loved from the horrors of the real world... and then he made an actual Hell for them all to go to and a Devil who wants to make them suffer there. He apparently planned that they would die! And he didn't even make a Heaven! He sure loved his puppets, right? Whoops!

Also, tough luck on the ones that don't have arms, I guess.

The Puppet Devil likes pulling more and more puppets into Hell, and if for some reason a living puppet turns up there, he may try to convince them to join the chant - if they do that, they're stuck there until someone drags them out. (Dragging a puppet who actually died out of Hell just makes it disintegrate.) He would really like it if Punch was to show up in Hell, but he's never managed it. Just in case the PCs were thinking this makes him an ally, the text explicitly states that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" doesn't work with the Devil.

Oh, and the Puppet Devil has "fight Punch better than anyone else" on his "can" list, and "defeat Punch" on his "can't" list. That seems to me to be uncomfortably like implying that Punch can never be defeated at all. After all, wouldn't defeating Punch imply being better at fighting him than the Devil would be?

Bedlam Circus was a part-constructed feature that the Maker was working on when he died. It's inhabited by Pulcinella Clowns who weren't finished and have no real lives of their own, but if Punch shows up there (which he often does) they start to copy him and his personality. It's suggested that if somehow a Pulcinella is taken out of Bedlam Circus, it calms down and gets its own voice and life back, pleading to never be returned to the circus.

"Leave Bedlam Circus" is on the "can't" list for the Pulcinellas. Now, I'm presuming that this isn't supposed to mean that the Pulcinellas drop dead of jigsaw damage shortly after getting their own lives back. But the idea of PC action being able to make an NPC puppet violate its "can't" list never came up in the first or second versions, and it changes a ton of stuff, because it means that (for example) the Boys could betray Punch, Judy could kill Punch directly, or Punch could even be happy... or survive without his mask.

The main reason why Punch hangs around Bedlam Circus is that he's trying to build a puppet lion with needle and thread, the old style way the Maker did. He still can't do so, and he spends a lot of time genuinely upset by this and moaning and sobbing in the wagons. "When deprived of the Maker's skin, Punch cannot bring anything more to life."

cough Nutcracker factory cough

The Graveyard is where every puppet in Puppetland who has ever died ends up whoooooooooa there what about Puppet Hell!? These were both added in the third version and they are two pages apart. It's not very interesting, mind you. There's a Sexton there who believes that when the Maker returns, all the dead puppets will live again. (I guess don't point out that the Maker made the graveyard and the Sexton.)

And finally The Thimble Theatre is a haven built for finger puppets who were tied of being kicked around and ignored. It's too small for any other puppet to enter, although they do have a special chair set aside for Punch so that he doesn't order the place burned down if he ever visits, which he never has (although the fact that the puppets here are not toiling under his iron fist to make things for him would probably be a bigger issue for Punch than that there's nowhere for him to sit?) The owner of the theatre, Guignol (I see what you did there), is a social butterfly and gossip monger and generally a good Mr Exposition, but he's still keen that the theatre is made only for finger puppets, although he'll leave to talk to others.

And so we can finally come on to..

The Sample Adventures

posted by hyphz Original SA post

The Sample Adventures

There's a couple of very brief suggestions for plots included in the second version and copied into the third; these are fairly open-ended and they're generally OK. However, the third version - and only the third version - goes into a lot more detail on the components of an adventure, emphasising the idea of an "ante" which is lost if the adventure isn't completed within the hour, of multiple villains and identifiable innocent victims. There's a few more single-sentence suggestions, which again manage to break things:


Punch is building a dragon to terrorize the land, but he needs a heart to make it come alive. Replace the stone heart he's carving with a candy heart so the dragon is sweet.

Kids, all together:


I can't heeeear you!


Whaaat did you say?


Uh, oops. Anyway, this whole business about "hey actually all he was missing was a heart" sidetracks everything and buggers up Punch's whole original motivation.

But, let's talk about the final section, Tales from Puppetland, which consists of a number of sample adventures written by Tynes himself and various guest authors. Some of them are OK, but many of them commit sins which are so common in sample or published adventures that this almost becomes a catalogue of things to avoid doing. Let's do this by category.

Category one is what we will call getting too big for your boots; that is, writing a sample adventure that goes beyond the realm of a sample adventure and starts breaking significant rules of the setting. I do cringe when I see games where every sample adventure starts with "this isn't like your typical X adventure" because of course that means that actually the authors are failing to deliver or specify what a typical X adventure actually is. There's even whole game lines which have more "atypical" adventures than typical ones.

Our first subcategory of undersized boots is let's blow everything up. Three of the adventures have the Ante being the complete destruction of Puppetland. First, Boys at Play has Spite believing that all mothers are beautiful, and therefore seizing Silence's cloak and cutting it up to make puppet babies (p-p-puppet babies, p-puppet babies). Unfortunately, the puppet babies are constantly trying to eat parts of the world.. but because they're just flaps of skin, anything they eat just falls right out again, and given the time they'll eat literally everything. It's suggested that the PCs could sew up the flaps so that the babies eat normally, which would be a good suggestion if any other puppet actually ate that way, which you'll remember they don't. No, they can't eat Punch. "His magic is too great", whatever that means. Also, about two-thirds of the way through the adventure it confuses Silence with Haunt.

The Terrible Fire has a haystack on a firm fill with mold (uh-oh, stuff in Puppetland decays? It's all doomed) and ignite a fire which threatens to set fire to all of Puppetland. Even though in the setting section it's explicitly mentioned that the landscape scorches but doesn't spread fires. You know what's makes these even more confusing? Both these adventures are by Tynes himself! What are we supposed to believe if the author has to break the rules he made up in order to come up with stories to be played?

And the third "blow everything up" adventure is Vada Wolley Rex which is The King In Yellow rewritten in Puppetland. Yes, with the play (turned into a song) and Carcosa and everything else. Not only does it blow up Puppetland if it completes, but unlike the other two, it offers no suggestion whatsoever of how the PCs can stop it happening. The only McGuffin in the adventure (and McGuffins are an explicit section of the adventure format) is the book which originally had the song in, which just corrupts any PC who reads it, and if they destroy it.. doesn't change anything because the song is still out there. Oh, and the Yellow Sign is replaced with the "Lemony Emblem".. and the adventure explicitly states that if any player says the words "Yellow Sign", the GM should rule that they see the Lemony Emblem in a dream and become affected by it (which does one jigsaw damage and prevents you acting against the adventure's master villain, so that's fun).

So, yea. All of these have the classic problem with "save the world" adventures that if they fail, the campaign is over, so it's very difficult for the co-operative story to have any actual tension. They also have the implied issue that Punch and his Boys are potential allies, as Punch does not particularly want his world to be destroyed (well, except in The Terrible Fire where Mayhem wants the fire to spread for some reason, even against Punch's will). This could be an interesting twist on the setting, but the problem with interesting twists on the setting in sample adventures is that you have to ration how many adventures have them or they are first no longer interesting and then no longer twists, and that doesn't seem to have been done too well here.

Our second big boots sub-category is it's just not enough. The Puppetland setting is pretty evocative and interesting as it is, but instead, we have to add our own parts to the setting just for the adventure, presumably because it wasn't good enough. Or because the adventure author - who is supposed to be an RPG professional - couldn't come up with anything that just remained within the setting that the main author - who is supposed to be a more senior RPG professional, and who asked them to write an adventure rather than a setting supplement because they either did not want a setting supplement or did not think the person they were asking was good enough to write one - could. Even though the buyer is presumably still expected to.

The Great Sage Of The Mountain has the players racing Grief to reach, well, a Great Sage on the Mountain. Well, actually, the Great Sage is the Mountain, and they're the oldest and wisest puppet of all, and they have the ability to grant wishes. They only have enough magic left to grant one wish, and that's why they're racing - because they're afraid that Grief will wish for Punch to be immortal. This obviously corrupts everything, since Punch could have just gone to the mountain and wished to be the Maker rather than doing the whole hammer thing. And if the PCs do get there first, it's suggested they could wish to know where the Maker is, rather than - say - wishing for the Maker to be alive again or for Punch to be dead.

Puppet Masters begins with the players saving a regular puppet from Grief, but then bizarrely gets into the PCs trying to claim "the Maker's Control Bar", which is what "he used to control his Marionettes". A puppet with it can indeed control marionettes. Punch is a marionette. There's no reason why the person who actually has the bar wouldn't be using it for that, but that's only half the problem, since the Maker having control over the puppets in Maker's Land literally contradicts the whole point of Maker's Land existing in the first place or the puppets actually being alive.

Pretty Polly is a rather more interesting affair. It revolves around a travelling puppet troupe called the Shadow Orchestra, one of whom is called Pretty Polly. See, apparently Punch had an affair with Pretty Polly, and Judy believes that Pretty Polly stole his physical heart in the process, which is what made him turn evil. So, yea, this adventure was obviously written for the first or second version of Puppetland before the third edition's origin story made it clear that there was no time for any of this to have happened to Punch. This is slightly less problematic, though, as it isn't the core of the adventure nor even a major deal (Polly didn't steal Punch's heart; she learned that he didn't have one and fled, but not before Punch sewed up her mouth so she couldn't tell anyone)

Our next major category, which is really a form of big boots but deserves special consideration in this game, is let's write a Puppetland adventure that is not in Puppetland. I already mentioned above the issue of one of the setting's important McGuffins apparently being outside the setting, and these go even further.

Punch and the Beanstalk has Punch kidnapping the player puppets, taking them to the edge of the world, and sending them down a beanstalk that he believes leads to "the land of the giants", to fetch a golden treasure for him. The beanstalk is actually a plant that's overgrown onto the Maker's Land diorama, so it's actually the real world. We are told that "Punch does not know where the vine leads", which seems oddly dense of him, given that he has been outside Puppetland, knows what is there, and ought to know that he is potentially giving these puppets access to the Maker's body. Also, Punch gives them an hour in-character to find a treasure for him, which means this adventure presumably has to be played in real-time. How many minutes does it take a puppet to walk across a real world floor? I'd like to say this is another adventure written for a previous version of Puppetland, but this is another one by Tynes himself, so there isn't really that excuse.

Vision of Sugar Plums cranks it up to eleven and rips off the dial. It has the PC puppets being led to a slit in the cloth that leads them through a tunnel that opens right out onto the outside (um, I thought it was in a basement?) and into the next building: a bakery and candy store. A kingdom of sweets, if you will. Yes, this is the Nutcracker suite translated into Puppetland, and it's suggested that this is where Punch recruited the Nutcrackers originally (even though it isn't. It states quite clearly that he forced others to build them. But I actually prefer this way because it avoids breaking the "Punch can't make puppets" rule) The only problem is that the Sugar Plum Fairy, while cuter, is almost as bad as Punch; she didn't kill the Baker or anything, but she and the Nutcrackers enforce a rigid caste system between the pretty cake decorations and everyone else who exists to serve them. The main aim of the visit is to return one of her Nutcrackers to the candy store, rescue a puppet who's been trapped there before, and then fight a giant seven-headed mouse.

Yes, this is the adventure that out of the blue gives Punch the ability to use magic to mutate living animals. This is just way out of left field, way out of scale, and goofy as hell. Punch wouldn't be bothered by not being able to make puppets if he's able to go sodding Dr Moreau on actual living creatures.

The Lost Giant is about an actual human child who ends up in Maker's Land, and how the PC puppets deal with this before the Boys and Punch.. um.. skin him. He's too big for a typical puppet to take on, but an animated puppet made of flesh and potentially wielding a knife is terrifying to any human, doubly so to a child who's already lost. There's two options, but the first and clearest is to arrange for him to leave by whichever way he came in, probably through the sky (and hope he doesn't tell anyone about the old dude with the skinned face lying on the floor). Then we fly off into the wild blue yonder by saying the other option is to have him transformed into a puppet by "the blue fairy". Yes, yes, Pinocchio, I get it, but The Maker would have to have made the Blue Fairy! Saying that the Maker indirectly has the power to turn humans into puppets just makes the whole thing totally different and hell, at that point, Punch might have done us all a favor.

(It does say, by the way, that the boy will be very scared by the idea of turning into a puppet and if he does end up doing that, the GM should make it a happy ending by implying that he was an orphan and has escaped some terrible fate by doing so, so it's not supposed to be as disturbing as it sounds.)

And The Bottler.. well, if Visions of Sugar Plums turned the strangeness up to eleven, The Bottler turns the amp up to the next planet and flies its stunt ship into the sun. I'm presuming this was written for the very first version of Puppetland, because it's the only way it works, and it's practically a separate setting in itself. A few highlights: a) the Maker was originally made as a puppet and turned into a human (and no, we don't hear anything about the Maker-Maker); b) he then made another Marionette and turned it into a human, but the human was accidentally shot on the street outside the puppet shop, so the Maker turned him back into a large puppet again; c) the Bottler is still hiding in a secret cave in Puppetland; d) the Bottler is turning the sky-crank, so it isn't actually always night; e) Judy knows about him.

Now let me make clear at this point that I'm not objecting to the level of creativity these adventures show or trying to find nits to pick. What I'm objecting to is the fact that they tear the setting down at the foundations and apparently don't care about it. And doing that in sample adventures is a bad thing because it implies that the author couldn't think of anything to do within the setting that didn't tear it down. Part of the issue with The Bottler is that the discovery of all these facts is the main driver of the adventure, but what does that mean for regular folks who want to keep the setting right as it is but still have adventures? Authors revise their stories for plot holes. Why shouldn't adventure writers do it, too? Also, I should mention that The Bottler hasn't been edited at all for its mismatches with the listed setting. It actually lists "It will be Blackest Night forever in Puppetland" in its Ante section as a consequence for the failure of the adventure, even though the Setting chapter and the Introduction both state that's already the case anyway.

The Box is another adventure that comes across as having been written for the very first version. It sends the PCs to the Puppetland version of prison (which was also mentioned in one of the other sample adventures and called The Corner, so we didn't check these against each other, did we) because a puppet crocodile, which is so dangerous that even the Maker thought it shouldn't roam free, has escaped from it. (This is why I think it was written for the first version; in the second and the third version the Maker could have just tossed the crocodile, but if he's the Christopher Robin version of the Maker, having to secure it inside Maker's Land makes much more sense.) The solution to this appears to be to let a separate puppet out of the prison who has the power to summon sausages at will, which the Crocodile prefers to eat to anything else. Oh, and to get into the prison and out again you have to take two points of jigsaw damage.

Our third category is not an adventure. The Rhyming Ritual introduces a scroll with a rhyme on it, and fills all the remaining adventure sections with "well, it could be this or that or anything" to hide the fact that the scroll with the rhyme is all the author actually came up with.

Punch Village is a little bit better, in that it introduces a new location - a model village where everyone supports Punch, probably because they're dumb - but does give it a good hook to the main plot; a puppet named Sally went to Punch Village in the hope of getting everyone there to leave for Respite as a humiliating blow against Punch, but she hasn't come back, and there's the fear she might have told others the location of Respite. There's not a lot to investigate, though; literally everyone in the village saw Sally getting killed by nutcrackers, so the adventure could end in literally one question.

And Overtime in the Factory is about the PCs bribing or sneaking their way into the disused Nutcracker factory. But there's no clear goal or ante - essentially it's just suggested that maybe the PCs could make something, or destroy the factory, and uh there might be Nutcrackers patrolling the inside of the factory or something but hey whatever.

So there are two adventures that manage to not fit into any of these categories, although they're kind of borderline. The Missing Peace concerns a puppet baker who bakes pies for Punch - see, we remembered that you can still have an active character within the constraint of their being under Punch's thumb - and who has recently been sending him pies with rather peculiar ingredients. To whit, other puppets. This is because someone has stolen a piece of the Grand Ten-Year Pie she was baking, and now she's running an internal inquisition to find out who did it, and throwing any suspects into pies. Our PCs need to go find it, and there's a couple of different places it could be suggested to be. Ok, that works.

Whoops, though. This is apparently another adventure for the first version. See, Punch's big interest in the baker is that she lives in Wedding Cake Castle, a very special tall castle with a top floor that can only be accessed by a couple getting married, and which is high enough to touch the sky. Punch was supposed to marry Judy here, but since that's now not going to happen, he's frustrated that he can't actually get to touch and possibly cut open the sky. Which would be fine in the first version, but in the second version he's already had that opportunity, tried and failed; and in the third version he's already tried and succeeded. Owell.

And Punch Damned It! has Spite and Haunt working together to try and drain the Lake of Milk and Cookies, which is a legitimately evil plan and fits well with everything else. Shame that it doesn't give any suggestions for how the PCs should stop this, as the McGuffins listed are both irrelevant to the plot, and even the suggested set pieces are just lists of how things could go wrong.


So, yea. For all I've said, I don't dislike Puppetland all that much. It's totally honest about being a way open narrative game, it has an appealing logic, and it's really only frustrating that it embodies so many of the issues with that style of game design. Massive problems with no stated resolutions, relying on PCs to come up with "creative solutions" that are realistically likely to be underwhelming. An ongoing plot with no concrete advancement technique, and a setting so interesting and engaging that only two of the sample adventure authors actually used it. Still, it's worth being aware of, and is a good read besides (the third edition is actually a really beautiful book too, if you don't mind creepy construction art).