April 15, 2021
“Sleepaway gives us long hazy days, chilled summer nights, kids screaming and chasing fireflies, crackling campfires, and a gaunt, cruel monstrosity forever hiding just out of sight, always asking, “What do you do next?”’
Sleepaway is a masterpiece of a game by Jay Dragon. It’s as heartfelt as it is absolutely heart-wrenching, and that’s exactly what it sets out to be.
The game is set in the wooded summer camps of our youth. The camp is a haven for the young campers who come here, isolated by the outside world. It’s a wonderful metaphorical (but also literal, in Jay’s case) reference to the safe spaces that are so essential to marginalized communities. Players act as camp counselors and help the kids have fun, discover themselves, and stop them from wandering a little too far into the woods. Because as you soon find out, Sleepaway is actually a horror game.
This camp that is so special to the campers and counselors, is haunted by a horrible monster known as the Lindworm.
As Jay writes,
“The Lindworm is a shapeshifter, or so the stories go; a creature that flays the skin of humans and hides within. As counselors of this summer camp, you’ve each been traumatized by the Lindworm, in your own ways.”
So right from the get-go, the game asks you to provide a safe space for campers to grow, while simultaneously making you VERY aware of the terrors that lie just at the edge of the woods around you. It’s a dichotomy that in and of itself makes for very good roleplaying material.
But I think it’s so much more than that. This game is a wonderful example of how to make a system work to its advantages. It’s written in beautiful prose that makes you feel each pang of the heart as you read it.
Because I think this game is so powerful, and frankly I could talk about it for a long time, I’m breaking the review up into several sections. I’ll try and keep them as succinct as possible.
Jay’s writing is some of the most evocative and inspiring that I’ve seen in a tabletop game. It’s full of this very warm, nostalgia for a time while still being very upfront with the pain that comes with it. It feels like it’s simultaneously looking to the camp as something to be loved and feared all at once.
But even more than that, reading this game just makes you excited for all the possibilities that could happen when it comes time to actually play.
For example, here’s a list of details that you define when you create the summer camp.
- Where the fire pit used to be.
- Where the frogs used to sing.
- Where the faerie houses used to be built.
- Where the path used to go.
- Where you used to sneak away to watch the sunrise.
- Where you realized you weren’t straight.
- Where the oldest cabins are.
- Where the witch was spotted.
- Where kids kissed when you were young.
- Where you confessed your childhood crush.
- Where the great battles of youth took place.
I couldn’t help but get a little giddy while reading through it. I can imagine each of these places in my mental image of what camp looks like. How each possible location might change the whole camp itself.
And EVERYTHING is like this.
Reading this book in its entirety feels a little bit like reading through a whole menu from front to back. There are so many options that you feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. But you know what you’re gonna get when it’s time to order.
I was nervous I was gonna get that option paralysis the first time we played. But as soon as the other players and I started talking about what we were thinking, it became pretty clear which options from this list weren’t going to make much sense for this version of our camp.
And that’s where the magic tone from Jay comes in.
Each option, each detail feels so powerful and so vivid that you can just picture it in your head. But it’s not all so overstimulating that you can’t figure out which one to pick. All these options and choices are really just suggestions. They never feel so crucial that you HAVE to pick one of these. They’re all substantial enough and different enough to create their own unique version of camp without feeling incomplete or lacking.
Another example of this is in the Character Sheets. Instead of a bunch of stats or weapons, the Characters are defined through their emotions, their needs. It feels so much more visceral to know things like your “Childhood Fear” or “What You’ll Never Live Down.” And the definition that comes with it is exhilarating. Each option offers a different angle of your Character, and each makes a bold statement as to who you are, who you can become.
GENDER & SAFETY MECHANICS
But the best part about the Character Sheets is the section where you describe your gender.
In most games this isn’t even a question. There’s this (unfortunate) assumption in many circles that you play whatever gender you normally identify with. This, of course, has several implications that are worth untangling. For starters, roleplaying games are a wonderful opportunity to explore gender identity. It’s a place to negotiate the world and how you want to exist within it, without the prejudice that too often comes with it. Stripping that to the simple default of your “typical” gender is presumptuous at best.
Sleepaway takes this assumption and blows it the fuck up.
There’s very few genders here that could be construed as a simple binary. Genders like the Lifeguard’s “Nice Boy” come to mind. But when it’s placed next to “Eagle”, “Castle”, and “Lighthouse in the Darkness” you can see that it probably isn’t as cut and dry as it seems.
Which strikes me as being exactly Jay’s point.
By writing a section like this in each playbook, Jay is prompting everyone who plays to have a discussion about gender. And not just a casual descriptor, but a real dialogue about the meaning of gender expression and what that can be. Past simple binaries or even a spectrum.
This makes even more sense when you’ve read the various sidebars and safety mechanics in the How To Play section.
If there was any doubt about Jay’s viewpoint, it’s made very explicit here.
From Jay’s sidebar on the use of pronouns and how some Characters might use them, to the sidebar about the need for respect in the inherently hierarchical relationship between Counselor to Camper, Jay says so much about the respect actually needed for one another in order to play this game.
It seems it would be impossible to misconstrue Jay’s point.
“Sleepaway, like the summer camps it’s based on, doesn’t care whether you’re cis, trans, or something more tangled. Gender here is more abstract and raw. Sleepaway cares how your gender shapes you, and what pronouns you use at camp.” On the other side of the page is a long list of pronouns, with the corollary of adding more if you have different ones in mind.
It goes so much further than so many other games, and it’s one of the most simple but effective tools a creator can put in to be more inclusive and explicitly affirming.
Jay does also put in Lines, Veils and Highlights, which helps facilitate BEFORE you start playing and bring up potentially upsetting or disturbing topics in play. Tools like these are fairly common in many indie RPGs, and it’s always nice to see them, given how simple they are to implement.
The game works with the Belonging Outside Belonging/No Dice, No Masters system by Avery Alder, an emotionally-driven game system that uses a token of economies to make Moves. The system is designed for use in games that focus on marginalized communities. It itself is an iteration of the Apocalypse World system by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker.
Sleepaway is a case study example of a game being written to suit the system it is for. This game would be totally playable with things like hit points, gear, etc.
But that is so not what Sleepaway is about.
Sleepaway plays into the advantages of the BOB system by trusting the players with figuring out the nitty-gritty details of health and gear. What it cares about are the EMOTIONS behind that stuff.
The game leverages everything it has at you and wants to see you succeed, fail, lash out, and rejoice in all of it. How did you FEEL when you saw the body? How did you ACT when you needed to run away?
I have some deeper thoughts regarding the Belonging Outside Belonging system that I’ll hopefully be getting into in an upcoming post soon. So I’ll spend the rest of this section focused on the deck mechanics for the Lindworm, which is pretty unique to Sleepaway.
The game uses a standard deck of cards. At the beginning of the session, someone is secretly chosen to act for the Lindworm. The game is very clear that you are NOT to act as the Lindworm, under any circumstances.
When someone makes the Weak Move “Invite the Lindworm to act upon the group,” everyone closes their eyes. The player who must channel the Lindworm picks up the top 3 cards of the deck, and selects one. This is the Lindworm’s play.
The cards range from severity based on the suit and number of the card. Each card has a set of cues, things to react to in the fiction of the game. From the mild but evocative Hearts, to the horrifying and mysterious Clubs, all the way to the absolutely nightmarish Spades, each card is so perfectly written that it never feels redundant. Likewise, if the last action was a Spades card and the next one is a Diamonds, it doesn’t feel anti-climactic. It’s all paced really well, so that even a well-placed Hearts action is terrifying.
A frequent thing I run into with a lot of deck-based games is that the cards feel like they’re abruptly being interjected into the fiction, instead of flowing naturally from it. I think Jay has solved that problem by having the Player act for the Lindworm choose from one of three. It circumvents it by letting them select the one that seems most fitting, and ignoring the ones that clearly wouldn’t be so sensible in a given moment.
The final thoughts I have regarding this game are about the Rituals.
A Ritual is like a brief mini-game that you play when you see fit.
As Jay writes:
“Rituals pause the normal structure of the conversation and briefly replace it with a new structure. The Ritual may represent a game of Truth or Dare, a romp through a meadow, a quiet moment among friends, sneaking down a path, or crafting a powerful spell. When a Ritual is happening, only communicate using the Moves printed on the Ritual itself.”
The Rituals are varied and differ in both their tone, actions, and prerequisites. Some require that other elements of the game be in play before they can be done, while others are free to use as players see fit.
I really like these. From a design perspective, a lot of them work as ways to connect some of the more abstract or loose ideas presented here without having to make them tie into the typical structure of the Lindworm’s cards or a Character’s Moves. They feel very similar to one of Jay’s other games, Esoteric. (I haven’t gotten a chance to play it yet, but even if I had, I couldn’t tell you about it.)
This idea of Rituals is really interesting, and I think is a wonderful way to connect longer, more narrative-driven games like Sleepaway with Jay’s other style of writing for games, which are primarily Lyric games.
(Lyric games, for those unaware, is an interesting genre of tabletop gaming that has been thriving on itch.io for the last few years, pioneered by creators like Jay Dragon, Riverhouse Games, and Maria Mison. The games vary wildly in terms of approach, design, and rules. It seems that they are largely abstract games of play, much more akin to games that children play than even a more out-there indie game.)
Here’s a link for those looking to explore the genre a little bit and see what Rituals are all about!
Cost: $30 Print, $20 PDF
Created by: Jay Dragon, Ruby Lavin
Buy Here: https://www.possumcreekgames.com/shop/p/sleepaway