Indie Game RPG Review: Mark Diaz Truman & Avery Alder’s The Deep Forest

What is this?
This is a map-drawing game. You collectively explore the struggles of a community of monsters, trying to rebuild and heal after driving off the human occupiers. It’s a game about community, difficult choices, and decolonization.  —The Deep Forest

This is a review of Mark Diaz Truman & Avery Alder’s The Deep Forest. My wife Deanna, a college professor, and I discovered The Deep Forest while she was creating a course to explore the intersection of narrative and authorship. That’s a fancy way of saying she taught college students about (mostly) GMless games, got them to play, and asked them to compare the experience to author-driven work.

Deep_Forest_coverWe came across the The Quiet Year early on in our search, but we were even more delighted to find its funkier cousin, The Deep Forest. In the end she included both games in the course. It created the opportunity to play them side by side, giving the students a chance to compare work with extremely similar designs, but with totally different assumptions.

As time has gone by, we’ve found ourselves more interested in returning to the odd and bittersweet world of The Deep Forest. As I write this, I’m not even sure why we prefer it! Perhaps we’ll stumble across that somewhere along the way…

As I put this review together, I’m going to weave in a detail or three from our most recent play. We’ve been doing lots of family gaming in our household this summer, mostly RPGs and story games. I thought it would be interesting if we tried a GMless title with our 7-year-old son, Xander. Something told me this would click for him, and it did.

Set-up

Knowing we were going to play with our son, I searched the text from the vantage point of his young eyes. Was there anything that felt too grown-up? Honestly, there wasn’t much. I tweaked the part of the Opening Story that said, “Come Winter, a band of heroes will arrive and we might not survive the encounter.” I changed that to: “…a band of heroes will arrive and we have to be ready.” A tweak, but I think an important one for our situation.

After reading the opening aloud, the next step was to Sketch the Occupation. This is where the players draw what the human invaders did to the monsters’ domain before they were run off. The rules ask that one player add a landmark, and then for the others to “demarcate the borders of the occupation.” Xander had an idea to put in a castle, but then pointed out that it had been there before the occupation. (The rules imply that the landmark is something built by the human invaders.) When asked he said, “There was a prophecy that the monsters would need a castle, so it was actually built before we ever got here.” We’ve learned not to question that kind of odd, inspired idea so we were like, yeah, let’s roll with it!

For our demarcations we sketched in a creekside village, the boundary of which bisected a ring of stones sacred to the monsters. The stones that were pushed over had been reused in invader buildings.

deep_forest_mama_possum

Next was Introducing Monsters, and their dwellings. Deanna created Mama Possum, whose eyes shone like headlights, and charmingly added her to the map with a bunch of babies on her back. Next she added a forest to be their home. I added the Gombritch, whose power was “to be taller than anything it stands next to.” Spidery and shy, the Gombrich lived in an abandoned siege tower next to Monster Castle. On his turn Xander came up with the Pop, who lived in the old human town’s abandoned watermill. The Pop was invisible, and needed to drink a lot of water. So much so that he threatened to drink up the town’s supply. (Eventually Xander starting calling him Grimmich, which I think is a superb monster name.)

Then we were on to Taboos and Adoptions… things that the invaders left behind that we shunned or embraced. You get only one Adoption, and we quickly agreed on the dogs the humans had left behind. Apparently monsters love feral dogs. As for Taboos… the bathhouse that the soldiers built was off limits, as well as the memorial cross in the human town.

Adjustments

As I’ve already alluded to above, we were more than willing to modify things to make the game more fun for Xander. It turns out we didn’t need to do much. The game procedures, which I’ll get into in the next section, clicked right into place for him. We gave him the maximum latitude in his narrative choices. Over the course of the game he introduced a robot, a giant Christmas Tree, and a human pretending to Santa Claus to get accepted in the community. Turns out Deep Forest is a Big Tent, though. In a game where oddity is the norm, everything just somehow worked. Deanna told me later that having Xander at the table gave her permission to play “with abandon,” and that she felt like she really understood The Deep Forest for the first time.

Paul Beakley of the Indie Game Reading Club gave me some great advice that fits the spirit of the game perfectly. He mentioned that he’d done a convention run of Deep Forest where there had been LEGO at the table for people to build with. Xander is all blocks all the time right now, so it really helped him get into it.

Play Procedures

The Deep Forest is an austere design. It’s like a Shaker cabinet; its elegance is in its simplicity.

The game engine is the oracle. As in The Quiet Year, the oracle is a season by season table of events. The four card suits represent the seasons, and each card corresponds to a listing in the oracle table. You randomize the cards by suit… and a season “ends” when you’ve played through all the cards of that suit. You start the game in Spring (Hearts) and finish in Winter (Spades).

(Normally you use all 13 cards of each suit, but we usually play the short game of 9 cards per season. With Xander along we trimmed that down to 7, and the session still felt like a full experience.)

Here’s a typical oracle result (Ace of Diamonds) that I particularly enjoyed in our game..

One of the smaller monsters begins to build something that will “bring the humans back.” What is it? How does the community react?

OR

One of the larger monsters begins to consume smaller monsters. Why? How does the community react?

As you can tell the oracle selects for untenable situations and conflict; it’s the shit-spreading machine that keeps the story well fertilized.

While the oracle is the wildcard that propels each turn, the acting player also gets to choose one action from a menu of options: Start a Project, Uncover Something Old, or Agree on Something.

When starting a project, the player commits the resources of the community to building or doing something. It lasts a number of turns (weeks) that’s represented on a six-sided die placed on the map. Anything longer than 6 weeks has to be broken up into a series of smaller projects.

Xander was a champ at remembering that Working on a Project, where you decrement all the project dice by one, happened in the middle of every turn. (We adults tended to forget.)

In any case, when a project finishes, the player who started it explains how it turned out. The Deep Forest says that it should always feel like a step forward. Our projects included building a cistern so that the Pop didn’t use up all the community water, fixing up an old truck we discovered to allow a group of human refugees to move on to a new area, and a multi-stage project to rebuild the sacred circle.

The Uncover Something Old action allows the acting player to fiat something provocative or just plain odd into existence; it can be from the human occupation or before. It’s a great way to make manifest the anxieties or unresolved issues that plague the community. Xander loved this ability; I think he delighted in the power of just creating things that amused him out of thin air. For the most part we were able to weave all those ideas into the narrative one way or another.

Agree on Something is the most abstract of the actions, and the one that gets most at the heart of the push and pull of community life.

Open with a statement about a problem or issue in the community. Going clockwise, everyone else then gets to weigh in once, sharing their agreement with your statement or describing what their silence looks like. Remember to indicate which monster is speaking… or not speaking.

Agreeing on Something never results in a concrete decision. Everyone weighs in (or stays silent), and then it’s over. This is how conversations work in communities: there is much left unsaid to preserve the peace.

We play it like this: the acting player gets to say their piece about something. And then the rest of the monsters support it, quietly mutter disagreement, or sit in silence. Not 100% rules as written, but it works nicely for us.

This is where the last game feature, Contempt, most often comes into play.

If ever you feel like a particular monster wasn’t consulted or honoured in a decision-making process, you can take a piece of Contempt and place it at the edge of the map, nearest the lair of the monster you feel was overlooked or ignored. If someone starts a project that you don’t agree with, you don’t get to voice your objections or speak out of turn. You are instead invited to place a piece of Contempt.

When I first started playing The Quiet Year, I didn’t get contempt. After all you don’t really do much with it; it’s not an asset in the typical sense. And then somewhere along the way it occurred to me just how valuable it is to have a “social signifier,” as the The Quiet Year rules call it, in play.

Just one look at the map tells you who feels like they’ve been shafted or ignored the most. Whether they have or not doesn’t matter. Just as in a real community, the feeling of being the injured party often carries more cultural weight than actually being the injured party.

Actual Play

There’s not too much to say here that wouldn’t require a full session report to explore. I’ll tell you what I remember most strongly, though. Any time the specter of the humans appeared I really, really felt it. Early on the Three Light Triplets started working on an antenna thing to “bring the humans back.” Even though none of the other monsters thought it would work, we still felt it was huge betrayal. (When a later oracle result called for a monster to be killed, one of the triplets got the axe.)

At another point a group of humans arrived seeking shelter. The council of monsters took pity on them. I mean, how desperate do you have to be to go live with a bunch of monsters? And finally, there was the tragicomic case of Santa Claws Monster: a human so downtrodden that he was willing to cosplay a monstrous version of Santa just to find a home. Claws was accepted with open, and knowing, arms. In the end, all the humans left peacefully after helping fight off the adventurers from their own towns and cities.

We all felt completely satisfied with our run.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

I remember The Quiet Year being popular when it debuted in 2013, and it’s since joined the ranks of a handful of evergreens in the Indie world. It’s a title that many people know and have played. The Deep Forest is an important reworking, a critique really, of The Quiet Year that adds depth and context to both games. In The Deep Forest’s Design Notes, Avery talks eloquently of her desire to explore aspects of her identity as well as the implicit colonialism of her previous work…

I grew up largely oblivious to my surroundings, and especially to the histories and oppressions that resided in them. I didn’t really understand, growing up,
that I was occupying Kootenay/Ktunaxa and Sinixt space. I moved to Vancouver without understanding that it was unceded Coast Salish territory, that it belonged to the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waluth people. And then I wrote The Quiet Year without understanding the ways that its design tacitly replicated colonial narratives of ownership and ‘unclaimed’ land.

Part of my desire to write The Deep Forest was to address that last one, to create a Quiet Year that centered upon decolonization. But I also wanted to explore something more familiar to me, queer and trans–the ways that otherness and monstrosity are sometimes reclaimed or leveraged in the process of coming to know ourselves.

There’s a ton to unpack there, but as a lifelong gamer it struck me in a particular way. It made me think about the othering of “monsters” in many, many traditional games. What does it say about our play culture if a lot of people engage with “the world’s greatest role-playing game” to gleefully slaughter stuff? To put a fine point on it: do we still play murderhobos if we start thinking about what the monsters in our games are up to, or what they might want?

And of course, The Deep Forest takes that one step further. It asks you to play those very monsters… the ones that have been ravaged by a group of “adventurers,” just like the ones you might have played last weekend.

I recently saw a review that argues that The Quiet Year is the perfect game for the COVID-19 era, but I’ll suggest that The Deep Forest has the edge. Listen one last time to what Avery has to say…

I wanted to write a game about the ways that collective recovery can shape a community – bringing people together or fracturing them, erasing difference or forcing us to see it more clearly.

…and to what Mark was working towards…

I wanted to design a game that drew out decolonization as a process of recovery, a slow growth from one mindset to another. It’s not what came before, largely because what came before was destroyed, but it holds the potential for a healing.

If that’s not a game for our times, I don’t know what is.

Before I wrap up I want to reinforce that this game isn’t didactic, at least in the sense of being preachy. It’s just an interesting, and sometimes oddly touching, experience that doesn’t rely on knowing Avery’s or Mark’s intentions at all.

Don’t play it because it’s good for you, play it because it’s fun. And, sure, it may rewire your head… but in a good way.

If you’d like to see The Deep Forest for yourself, you can find the links hosted on Avery’s Buried Without Ceremony website here. Please consider purchasing a few products while you’re there, like The Quiet Year.

3 thoughts on “Indie Game RPG Review: Mark Diaz Truman & Avery Alder’s The Deep Forest

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