By the Author of Lady Windermere’s Fan is a new story game being kickstarted by Ed Turner. There’s no GM and no dice, just a group of equals sitting down to create a story. The game is heavily inspired by the works of Oscar Wilde, whose plays are still famous for characters with absurd faults and foibles who somehow get happy endings they clearly don’t deserve. Even the game’s title is a Wildean reference. After Wilde was persecuted for his sexuality, his name was struck from the publication of his final play, to be replaced with “By the Author of Lady Windermere’s Fan,” a previous work of his.
In the game, players take on the role of a theatrical company putting on a farce by Wilde, but there are two problems: there haven’t been any rehearsals, and no one is sure which play they’re supposed to be putting on. Fortunately, Wildean plays share a number of common characteristics. All that’s needed is a little improv, and everything will turn out fine, right? Probably not, but at least everyone gets a happy ending.
For full disclosure, Turner has written a number of articles for us. I’ve done my best to be impartial and judge the game on its merits alone, but I can’t be completely certain that I’m unbiased. With that out of the way, what does this game of lies and satire have in store for us? Let’s find out.
The Writing Is Clever but Complex
Turner knows how to sell his game, no question about that. From the opening short story* to the explanation of the rules, this entire book is a pleasure to read. It’s especially fun if you have a theatrical background, as I do. As a former stage manager, the text conjures memories of actor melodrama and set strikes gone bad. If you’re an actor, you might remember the time you soldiered on after the stage manager lost all your props.
While this is an instruction manual and not a piece of fiction, an entertaining authorial voice is still useful. If nothing else, it makes you less likely to zone out as you’re reading through the rules before game night. Plus, it’s a lot easier to convince everyone else to read the rulebook if it’s well written.
The problem is that, at times, Turner depends too much on his clever pen.* Several sections make perfect sense as a tribute to Oscar Wilde when Turner describes them at length, but they turn messy when you try to explain them to the group. Turner’s instructions on scene setting are very useful, but they’re also several paragraphs long, which makes them awkward to communicate when the rest of the group is staring at you expectantly. Similarly, the idea that everyone is supposed to stand up and bow to an imaginary audience at the end makes perfect sense when Turner describes it, but is a lot harder to sell in real time.
Those issues aside, the quality of the game’s writing is still a boon. Even if you don’t play it often, simply reading the book is a good exercise for those who are interested in combining theatrical elements with tabletop gaming.
The Setup Is Fun but Demanding
Enough about the game’s writing – what about its actual rules?The first step in this story game is to create a setting. Without speaking to each other, players write one or two “sets,” or locations where the story can take place, and then the group chooses three to use for their story. This is great fun and brings out the feeling of searching through the overflowing storage rooms of an old theater, throwing whatever you find on stage before the audience arrives.
The problem comes once you’ve chosen your three sets. At this point, the game expects you to construct what’s essentially a simple plot outline. You’re supposed to look at the three sets you’ve made and decide what kind of story you’ll be telling, or at least its central conflict. This is a really big ask, especially considering you haven’t even made characters yet, and the game doesn’t offer any structure for how to do it. Worse, most of the game’s examples are taken from The Importance of Being Earnest, so they’re only applicable if you’re lucky enough to get three coherent sets. It’s much more likely you’ll get three locations that have little to do with each other, and examples of how to reconcile them would have been very helpful.
This issue isn’t insurmountable, but it’s a major stumbling block in preparing to play the game. Fortunately, a relatively easy solution is to create characters first and then go back and collaborate on the general outline. That way you have something more to go on than three unconnected locations. This problem is unlikely to trip up a veteran story-gaming group, but newbies will be harder pressed.
Another option is to use the so-called “playbills” at the back of the book. These have sets and characters already picked out and ensure a coherent premise for storytelling. While this option is certainly easier, it also removes a big portion of the gameplay.
Character Design Is Simple and Entertaining
After the hiccup of choosing sets, making a character is refreshingly easy. You only need to create a look, a name, and a handful of roleplaying traits, and you’re done. By this point in the process, you’ll likely be swept up in the Wildean absurdity of it all, so crafting characters in that vein is an easy task.
By far, the most important character element is the Lie. This is an untruth your character begins the game with, and it’s something that will grow and change over the story. The more ironic the Lie, the better. A theater owner’s Lie might be “I love the theater.” This is a signal to other players that the character does not, in fact, love the theater but insists they do when asked.
Lies provide the main action for the game. Each scene focuses on exposing a single character’s Lie, and it’s great fun to press other characters about why they keep skipping opening night if they love the theater so much. When a character’s Lie is discovered, they move onto a new one. When the theater owner can’t avoid the questions any longer, they’ll claim that they were away because they’ve been overseeing the construction of a brand new theater across town. In a Wildean farce, no one simply owns up.
Each character also gets a happy ending, something they’ll get at the climax even though they certainly don’t deserve it. This helps steer the game in a coherent direction, as everyone knows what ending they’ll need to help construct for their fellows.
Play Appeals to Improv Fans
Once you’ve finished with sets and characters, Windermere’s Fan plays similarly to other GM-less story games. Players take turns setting scenes and roleplaying back and forth until the scene concludes. Some character traits provide a little direction, but the story itself is very free form.
This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the lack of structure means players won’t get tangled up in complex rules. Everyone can roleplay in whatever manner they enjoy. After creating a host of Wildean characters, it’s easy to imagine any number of hilarious interactions.
The few rules that do exist are usually helpful. Players know the goal of most scenes is to challenge someone’s Lie, which keeps the game from stalling out. The game also has rules for employing minor characters, which are very useful for specialized roles. You might notice that your fellow player desperately needs a drinking buddy to move their scene along, but none of the other main characters drink, so you put on the hat of a minor character and throw yourself into the fray.
The downside is that players who aren’t as comfortable with pure improv will have difficulty. The lack of structure means it’s up to the other players to rescue those for whom “yes, and” doesn’t come naturally. This is manageable if everyone is alert and ready, but a lapse can leave inexperienced players desperately grasping for direction.
The rules aren’t always conducive to good game play, either. One issue that caused confusion in our group was around what to do when a Lie is challenged. The rules say to make the Lie bigger, but that was often difficult. We eventually figured out that changing to a different Lie worked just as well, but we had to go outside the rules to do it.
The Meta Currency Is Underdeveloped
In addition to pure improv, Windermere’s Fan has a meta currency called Audience Favour that helps govern play. Gaining Favour is easy. Whenever a player does something funny or cool in the story, another player can hand over a token from the central pool. Losing Favour is a little more complex. Players are supposed to give a token back to the pool whenever they have to break character, forget another character’s name, or otherwise do something that interrupts the flow of the game.
Audience Favour does give the game some weight. When you really put your heart into a scene, it’s nice to get a reward from your fellows. And while the rules don’t spell this out, penalizing yourself a token is a great way to signal to other players that you need help. You’ve lost the thread and would appreciate a rescue, please.
But for how often players get Favour tokens, it feels like you should be able to do something with them, and you can’t. There’s no use for the tokens, except that whoever has the most at the end gets to name the play you’ve just put on. That’s cool, but it’s a weird feeling to watch your tokens multiply throughout the game and not be able to spend them in some way.
There is an optional rule where characters who run out of Favour tokens are eliminated from the game, literally booed off stage, but this isn’t a good solution. Kicking people out of a game that will last several hours is untenable if you want to keep them as friends, and it’s clear in the book that this rule isn’t intended for most groups.
While rules for spending Favour tokens would require a more complex game, they would also feel more natural. As it is, trying to earn tokens can lose its luster, because after a few scenes you realize that they don’t actually do anything for you.
The Game Works for Wilde Fans and Neophytes
One concern I had going into this game was that it would require a devotion to Oscar Wilde, but that’s fortunately not an issue. Where the game borrows from Wilde, it provides more than enough context for the less theatrically inclined to catch up. This game will provide a fun night of story-gaming entertainment for all, no matter how often they’ve been to the theater in real life.
At the same time, it’s clear that Turner knows his subject matter, and hard-core Wilde fans will have plenty to enjoy from this game. That’s a delicate balance to strike, but it’s important for a game with a title that refers not only to one of Wilde’s plays but also to his persecution and imprisonment.
With its broad appeal, I’m happy to recommend Windermere’s Fan for any group that enjoys story games like Kingdom, Microscope, and Fiasco. The game is a little light on structure, but it has all the tools necessary for a fun evening of comedic satire.