If there is something that John Tynes knows, it is scary. Puppets are scary. Puppets killing their makers are scary. The Puppetland game looks like an unassuming children's book (albeit one written by Neil Gaiman and with art by Dave McKean), but that appearance hides something much darker.
I came across the Hogshead Publishing edition of Puppetland around 2000 or 2001, in a remainder bin at a comics and gaming store that I shopped at then. The little game was weird, and made my head hurt a little bit, but it made for some interesting play the couple of times that I was able to convince people that they would really want to play living puppets in a world gone terribly wrong because of Punch's pride. You can find a text only version of the original game up at Tynes' website.
Puppetland fills a niche similar to the now classic horror game Kult. For me, both of these games draw upon Gnostic ideas of God and the Demiurge to create worlds that scare the players. In both games, "God" is absent from the world, and other beings have tried to reshape the world into their image. One of them has puppets.
In addition to drawing upon Gnostic concepts, Puppetland also draws upon the long history of Punch and Judy puppet shows. These shows were originally adult entertainment at outdoor venues (because of their violent content), but they eventually became shows for children as well. Most of the "plot" elements of a Punch and Judy show would be solved by Punch beating something with a stick, club or hammer. Performances of these puppet shows date back to the 16th century in the UK.
In the backstory for the game, Punch is jealous of the Maker, and of the Maker's power to create puppets. Punch wants the power of the Maker, he too wants to be able to create puppets and have everyone love and respect him because he is a puppet of great power. None of this ends well for Punch, The Maker or Puppetland.
If you hadn't figured it out by this point, you play puppets in Puppetland. There are four types of puppets that you can play, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: finger puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets and marionettes. These are all puppets who had been created by The Maker and now must deal with the actions of Punch, and his impact upon their Puppetland.
The mechanics to describe your puppets are pretty simple and break down to the categories of what your puppet is, can do and cannot do. That's about it. The descriptions of these qualities will go from a couple of items in a list to a paragraph at most. There are also spaces on the character sheet that are shaped liked puzzle pieces. These pieces are slowly filled in during play, when certain things happen. Once the puppet's puzzle is all filled in, they will die.
There is no dice rolling in Puppetland, it is a true storytelling game. There is a Puppetmaster who narrates the world of the puppets and decides if the actions taken by the puppets would occur or not. The game pushes the idea that it is the most creative ideas by the people playing it that should be the most likely to occur.
Puppetland isn't going to be for everyone. It probably isn't going to be a game for most gamers. The first print version of this game was published as an extra for the British gaming magazine Arcane in 1997, followed eventually by Hogshead Publishing including it with Violence and Pantheon in their New Style games line in 1999. Historically, this puts Puppetland behind similarly diceless game Amber Diceless and ahead of the earliest recognized indie/storygames like Ron Edward's groundbreaking Sorcerer.
Diceless games can always be a bit "handwavey" for more traditional gamers who like their dice rolling and their dungeon crawling, but Puppetland lives up to its subtitle of "a storytelling game with strings in a grim world of make-believe." It is a game that emphasizes the creation of a story by the group, at the table. The few mechanics that the game has emphasizes the creating of stories.
Puppetland games are timed to take only an hour. At the end of that hour, the puppets fall asleep until their next tale. The puppets are aware of the fact that these stories are timed, and the game encourages that the puppets become more frantic as the time to end gets closer. Because the game has a storybook quality, the actual hour can contain days, weeks or even months of the story. You are not required to play the game in actual time.
The puppets say what the actors (the players) say while sitting at the table. Everyone who has tried to run role-playing games with a specific tone, or type of content, has run into that tone being derailed by jokes or table talk that has nothing to do with the game. In a game like Puppetland, where the tone of the stories is so important, you need ways to keep this under control.
These rules are intended to maintain a storybook quality in your games. The game suggests doing any narrations in the past tense ("The puppets quietly entered into the darkened room"), while dialog is done in the present tense.
Puppetland requires a special group of people to play it, but the rewards to the players will be an enchanting evening of weaving a story of magic, myth and mayhem in a world of puppets. It can make for a diversion from a group's regularly scheduled gaming, or it can make for a fill in pickup game. If you enjoy reading strangely tinged stories of horror, you will enjoy creating them with Puppetland.
You can get Puppetland in PDF (using links in this article) or as a book from Arc Dream Publishing at your local gaming stores.