Amnesia and Improv: A Play Report for A Penny For My Thoughts

Last February, Moriah turned 13. This really ought to be a momentous occasion. She and her entire family celebrated by getting sick. To make up for it, Moriah’s family threw her a 13 ½ birthday party. The party theme was “mystery”, and Moriah asked me to provide a roleplaying game for the occasion.

I didn’t think that Dirty Secrets was quite the right fit, but I couldn’t figure out a good game to play. I toyed with the idea of designing a game especially for the occasion, but it just wasn’t coming together. So, a couple days before the party, I settled on a shortlist of three games: Primetime Adventures, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and A Penny For My Thoughts.

After presenting the options to Moriah, along with my reasons for each one, she selected A Penny For My Thoughts.

A fussy baby intervened. Busting out the game wasn’t going to work right then. But I’d promised a roleplaying game to Moriah, so we adjourned to my house later in the evening to play.

Did I mention that Moriah’s family lives down the street? I didn’t? Yeah, they are close friends of the family and live just down the street.

So, around 8:30, we sat down to play A Penny For My Thoughts. We wrapped up around 11:45, not having really completed the session. As a matter of fact, we rushed the ending on two of the stories so that we could actually hear the ending.

And yet, it was a distinctly satisfying game.

Let’s see. Here’s a player list.

Seth: That’s me. I first heard about this game at GenCon 2007 when Emily Care Boss came over to me and said, “You have to check out A Penny For My Thoughts by Paul Tevis.” She was right. I was involved in a couple playtests of the game and eagerly awaited this game’s release. At this point, I think I’d say that A Penny For My Thoughts is my favorite pickup RPG. I was the only player who had played A Penny For My Thoughtsbefore.

Ralph: A friend of both my family and Moriah’s family and part of my regular gaming group. Oh yeah, he co-designed this game called Universalis and is working on some other games, too. You may have heard of him.

Raquel: Another friend and fellow roleplayer. Also, Moriah’s aunt. She had been interested in playing A Penny For My Thoughts for a while and was enthusiastic to have the opportunity to play.

Toby: Moriah’s brother. If I’m doing my math correctly, he’s eleven. He’s a budding gamer. He was at Gencon 2008 as a tenth birthday present, if that gives you any idea. He’s a fan of Magic: The Gathering and Sons of Liberty.

Moriah: the aforementioned 13 ½ year old. I’m trying to remember if she’s actually played a roleplaying game before. If so, it was probably Sons of Liberty. Or was it The Land of 1000 Kings? I don’t remember. Anyways, she’s not generally someone that I would have expected to be particularly interested in roleplaying games. Actually, come to think of it, I’m a little surprised that she asked to play one for her birthday.

But I’m glad she did.

For those of you who don’t know, A Penny For My Thoughts is a roleplaying game in which you are all amnesia patients undergoing an experimental therapy to attempt to regain your memories. Well, at least that’s how the game presents itself. It’s actually a very clever collaborative storytelling game. The storyteller is telling a story about himself; however, he cannot control his own actions in the story. (After all, his mind is resisting his efforts to remember what he did.) So, the other players provide the storyteller with options on what he did at turning points in the story. It’s very cool.

The game draws heavily on Paul Tevis’s background in improv techniques, which is reflected in the ruleset. This is most obvious in the rules for Guiding Questions. Each story starts by drawing a random Memory Seed from a container on the table. This is a short sense impression or memory snippet. Some examples from yesterday’s game: “Going next door to your friend’s house”, “moonlight filtering through the fog”, “the smell of a campfire,” or “the smell of a campfire”. That’s not a typo, by the way. A neighbor had a small fire going, which inspired both Ralph and myself to put that trigger in the pool. And yes, both were drawn, too.

Anyways, once you get your Memory Trigger, each of the other players asks you a question about the Memory Trigger. The answer to the question is always “Yes, and…” and then you must add an additional detail. This is a classic improv technique which requires that the receiving player accept the input of the other players.

Moriah struggled with this at first. She tried to answer “No”. She tried to answer “Yes, but…”. She even weaseled a bit on the “Yes, and…” Gradually, the nature of the game became apparent to her.

The Introduction of the game has a section called “A Word of Caution”, which reads as follows:

Before we continue, you must understand that whatever you did in your past is in the past—you do not have control over what has gone before. As the treatment progresses, you may discover that the person you were does not match your expectations. Indeed, the person you were may turn out to be someone you do not now wish to be. The cause of your trauma might be something accidental that you blame yourself for, but it might be some intentional act that you undertook with full knowledge of the consequences.

You may feel at times that the other patients have control over your past. This is not true. Your fellow patients will reveal the person you were. While you do not have control over that person, you do control how you feel about it and what sort of person you will be after today.

Yep. It’s like that. Which is, by the way, pretty much awesome.

This came to a head Moriah was struggling to come up with “Yes, and…” responses for her second memory, which is an unpleasant memory. I paused the game and asked if she was struggling because she didn’t like who her character was turning out to be. She agreed that this was the case. So I told her that the entire point of play was discovering who you are. And yes, you might not like finding out the truth. But that’s what that last question is for: “Do you want to remember?” Now that you know who you are, do you want to remember who you are?

She stopped fighting it. Instead of struggling against who she was turning out to be, she embraced the process. And her creativity blossomed.

The same thing happened as she was asking Guiding Questions of the other players. Improv theory states that people are naturally creative. Normally, when someone is having trouble thinking of something creative, it’s not because the person has no thoughts. It’s because the person has judged those thoughts to be unworthy. Part of improv training is learning to embrace your first creative impulse.

Both Moriah and Toby were struggling with this. Moriah particularly struggled with the feeling that her contributions weren’t interesting enough. So Ralph and I introduced her to the concept of being obvious.

In his book Play Unsafe, Graham Walmsley discusses the principle of “being obvious”. He says that you shouldn’t strive to be clever or cool. Too often, “clever” ideas just end up falling flat. Instead, you should simply state what is obvious to you. Most often, what is obvious to you will be obvious to everyone else, and you will have avoided being a disruption. But, sometimes, what is obvious to you wasn’t apparent to anyone else. Now, your “obvious” idea is the awesome addition that the game needs.

We laid this out to Moriah as she was struggling with a question for Raquel’s second memory (again, this is the unpleasant memory). We had already established that she had suffered a miscarriage and that her man had left her because she was emotionally distant from him and because he thought that she should be over it by then. Moriah had the last question to ask, but she was sure that her idea was stupid.

But we coaxed it out of her. We talked about “first thoughts”. We explained “being obvious”. An d then Moriah turned to Raquel and asked, “Were you out of groceries?” Yeah, her “obvious” idea. Her “stupid” thought that she didn’t want to share with us.

No one else at the table had even thought of it, and it broke the scene open.

We were running short on time, but we wanted to see the end of Raquel and Moriah’s stories. So we gave each of them a penny from the bowl to give them the minimum four pennies necessary to tell their third memories. Moriah ended up going last.

By this point, it was late, and we were all tired. Moriah was really trying, but she was so tired that she felt lost. By this point, she was telling about her life in jail. About spending time in solitary confinement. About making a shiv. About starting a riot. About framing someone for a murder and taking a beatdown as a result.

It was truly heartbreaking. Somehow, somewhere, something had gone horribly wrong. In the end, she was beaten unconscious by a gang of inmates and had awakened at the Institute.

But did she want to remember?

She did.

There were good things to remember, too, she explained. If she chose to forget, she would lose those good memories, too. So she chose to remember.

It was a powerful moment.

And, after the game, as they prepared to head back down the street, Moriah told me that she enjoyed the game and that she’d like to play again.

That’s a win in my book.


8 responses to “Amnesia and Improv: A Play Report for A Penny For My Thoughts

  • James Lansberry

    Thanks for doing this. It is a blessing that we live so close that even with Hope being the Hope of these days (she won’t always be like this!) you were able to play and GM for this.

    twould have been nicer for all to have started earlier, but I’m glad you all still played and this is a lovely writeup.

    (Moriah’s papa)

  • Colin

    Sorry to ask so mundane a question to so interesting a writeup, but… how long did the game run with five players? And have you played Penny with smaller groups (this is especially interesting to me if those groups included some of the same people)? If you did, how long did it take?

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    We started around 8:30 (maybe 8:45 to actually get rolling) and wrapped at 11:45. As I say, though, we didn’t actually complete all the questionnaires. Toby still had one remaining memory, and Ralph and I each had two.

    My games of Penny in the past have been with three players. They tend to take about three hours. I’m guessing that a four- or five-player game with more expert players would tend to take a similar length of time.

  • Colin

    We played our first game, with three players, in almost exactly two hours. I am coming to see, based on that plus our experiences with Fiasco, that our group plays like we’ve got spurs in our sides.

    Seth, I had one other question. When you played with five, how did people tend to distribute their requests for guidance (“What did I do or say then?/… Or was it…?”)? Did everyone get to participate more or less equally?

    I’ve been fretting about playing Penny with more than three, in case it isn’t obvious. It’s likely to come up sooner rather than later for me. We loved the way that three players led to everyone participating in every instance where the rules touched the fiction, and I’m worried that playing with four or more might reduce the gestalt of cooperation we achieved.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra


    You said:

    “I’ve been fretting about playing Penny with more than three, in case it isn’t obvious. It’s likely to come up sooner rather than later for me. We loved the way that three players led to everyone participating in every instance where the rules touched the fiction, and I’m worried that playing with four or more might reduce the gestalt of cooperation we achieved.”

    Allay your fears! Because, actually, I’d much rather play Penny with four or five players, assuming that there’s enough time to complete the game. 😉

    Here’s the thing about Penny. As you play, you begin to get a sense of what sorts of answers a given player will provide for you. At the same time, the other players will begin to get a sense of the kinds of answers to which you’ll respond positively. So, when the Traveler selects two of the Guides for Guidance, he’s actually fishing for a certain kind of answer. Then, he rewards the answer he prefers with a penny. So, over the course of the game, the players begin to reach an equilibrium, where they are better able to cooperate together, while still leaving room for surprise. Because, as a Guide, I’m not *required* to give you the answer you want, and sometimes, there’s an unspoken conspiracy at the table to warp the Traveler’s narrative into something else.

    As an aside, this is part of why I like playing Penny “in character” as much as possible. This way, there aren’t overt conversations about story construction at the table. Each player needs to be working at sensing the currents of mood at the table and reacting appropriately. It’s…well, it’s a lot like being in an improv skit, where there’s no opportunity for verbal coordination. Less talking about the game is better.

    Also, since each player gets to ask a Guiding Question at the beginning of each memory, each player will have the opportunity to touch each story.

    Finally, the penny economy pretty much assures that creative input will be spread around the group.

    So, yeah, jump in with four or five. I think it’s actually a superior experience.

  • James Lansberry

    I’ll say this publicly so you can hold me accountable. I’d be interested in playing this as a one-shot sometime.

  • Moriah Lansberry

    We should do this again sometime. 5 year reunion anyone? 😉

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