Title: Puppetland / Power Kill
Author: John Tynes
Creator: Hogshead Games
Publisher: Hogshead Games
Year: 1999
24 pages

Product Rating: 3 (***)
Game Play Rating: 4 (****)

Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2003 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John

         Puppetland is a distinctive role-playing game, self-described as "a storytelling game with strings in a grim world of make-believe". It is unique in that it relies on the device that everything spoken by the players at the table is also said by their character. In the style of the old Punch-and-Judy shows, the puppet PCs always say what they are doing as they are doing it (i.e. "I hit you with my hammer. Whack! Whack!").

         Power Kill is a meta role-playing game, published as half of an booklet by Hogshead Games, where the other half is the Puppetland RPG, also by John Tynes. Power Kill is intended to be played in short sessions at the end of each session of another role-playing game. The players take on the roles of delusional mental patients, where their delusions correspond to the actions of their PCs in the main RPG campaign.


         The double-RPG booklet is letter-size (8.5"x11") and 24 pages. One cover is entitled "Puppetland", and has a dark red drawing of Punch with a horrible stitched skin face and claws. It takes up 21 pages and includes 13 nicely atmospheric black-and-white drawings. The last three pages and the back cover are "upside-down". Flipping the booklet over reveals the other cover entitled "Power Kill", illustrated with a modified photo of two men in sneakers, jeans, and t-shirts under a concrete bridge -- with one pointing a pistol at the other.


         The story behind Puppetland is that there was a gentle toymaker who created a magical land where he and his living puppets would be safe from the violence of the human world. However, his greatest puppet Punch killed him and took control of the land. He carved a horrible face for himself out of the Maker's face, and made six loyal puppet-servants sewn of the Maker's flesh.

         There are no dice or numbers used in the game play. The GM ("puppetmaster") adjudicates the results of all actions based her own judgement. There are three rules:

1) "An hour is golden, but it is not an hour."
A game always lasts only one hour of real-world time, but this can be any amount of in-game time.
2) "What you say is what you say"
Everything said by the player while sitting in their chairs is what their puppet PC says. This is the distinct feature of the game -- which simultaneously makes play rather silly and surreal, but also extremely intense because everything spoken is a part of the story.
3) "The tale grows in the telling, and is being told to someone not present"
This is basically a directive to both GM and players to cooperate in making a good story.

         There are a few other rules as well. There are four types of puppets: finger puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets, and marionette puppets. Each has basic limits on what it can or cannot do. For character creation of an individual puppet, the player defines three adjectives, three things the puppet can do, and three things the puppet cannot do. These are judged by the GM, but should be fairly concrete. For example, the sample character can not "tell a lie, swim fast, or hurt another puppet who hasn't or isn't about to hurt her or someone she cares for".

         There is also a punishment mechanic. Whenever a puppet does something it shouldn't be able to do, one of sixteen jigsaw pieces of its picture is filled in. A piece is also filled in if something "especially bad" happens. If all sixteen pieces are filled in, the puppet is irrevocably dead. This does not neccessarily represent physical damage to the puppet, but rather some nameless magical property being eaten away. More ordinary physical damage is purely a matter of GM discretion and has no mechanical representation. Furthermore, by the magical rules of the land, all damage is magically healed by a night of rest.

         The book also contains extended advice to players and GM, nine NPC's, and a 2.5 page description of the Maker's Land.

         Overall, Puppetland is a fascinating game. It is not for everyone, but I think it is a very inspired design. The design is not in the mechanics per se, but rather in the story framework which is calculated to match with the peculiarly intense role-playing which comes from everything spoken being in-character.

Power Kill

         As mentioned, "Power Kill" is meta roleplaying game. After a normal RPG session, a brief session of "Power Kill" follows. The GM acts as a psychiatrist interviewing each player, who are ostensibly delusional mental patients. The GM then describes the events of the last session in the context of the real world: i.e. attacking an orcish fort might be shooting up a slum apartment building. Unfortunately, the tone of Power Kill is highly judgemental and it directly associates fantasy violence with real-world violence, and in a way that I do not consider particularly insightful. Quoting from it:

"Murder, theft, extortion, burglary, and other serious crimes are the bread and butter of RPG storytelling; regardless of a game's higher purpose, it still amount to story after story that consist of nothing more than gross criminal behavior covered in a glossy coat of genre acceptability."

         While it might not literally say that this is "bad", I think that describing it as "nothing more" than criminal behavior certainly heavily implies this. I am also rather doubtful of its claim that no roleplaying game in print encourages law-abiding behavior. For example, Star Trek is a good example of an RPG with more-or-less law-abiding PC's.

         It defines itself by saying "POWER KILL is meant to suggest a few answers. Or at least, to ask a few questions." In my opinion, it does ask some good questions -- but it does so in a judgemental tone that is biased to put pulp action in a negative light. A great many games do fall into a rut of action-adventure motifs, but I don't see that this game suggests anything useful about that rut.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Fri Apr 25 17:32:07 2003