I finally played A Penny for My Thoughts  for the first time at a recent RPG meetup. I ran the group straight from the book, following the written guidance and cues. It was a good session– with prep so light I could never complain– but many of the pitfalls the author warned about did come true in our session.
Later, I played a pair of games on Halloween Eve and Halloween. We weaved around some of the same problems, but managed to avoid a few more. The third play included several players who had played at one of the prior sessions, so some of the opening jitters and system tests weren’t as much of an issue. As other reviewers have commented, the game takes practice.
Preparing for the session was the easiest experience I’ve ever had. Read through the book– the whole thing or just the Treatment Procedure. (I read the whole thing, then reread the Treatment chapter.) Grab some old business cards, a pencil, box, and a bowl full of pennies and you’re ready to roll.
During the session, the GM can just be a guide– reading the book and staying separate from the group as Dr. Tompkins– that’s how I ran the first time. The second session I took a seat as a fellow patient, treating the prompts read out of the book as Dr. Tompkins addressing us all. I probably wouldn’t have thought of doing it that way until Kevin pointed it out. It made for a more interesting session for me; I was taking the test with them, not just proctoring it.
For the first session, Dr. Peter Tompkins guided the three patients through their treatment. Their strange histories were revealed; one woman had escaped to Mexico fleeing her domineering wife, but couldn’t leave things there; a young man landed in prison after puking on a judge and punching his mother– years later, he blackmailed his old cellmate and boss on the dude ranch; and the third patient smashed his head after horrific loss.
The group involved three players who had never seen the game before, guided by me as Dr. Peter Tompkins. We used the standard questionnaire and played it straight. Only one rule tripped us up– and that only briefly– so it was an excellent first performance from a new system.
On the other hand, the narratives that came out were strained– fun, but disjointed and with a real sense of player level conflict. One player liked to spike the story with hard adversity– ignoring the choices the patient had made and continued to make in their stories. This led to a strange dynamic, where the choices (in a 3 player game) usually weren’t choices– they were a brief pause before accepting the only “not horrible” answer. So the “gonzo” concerns mentioned by the advice text cropped up in a strange way. (Well, directly too; we had 10 year time jumps, hit men hirings, and other far from normal events.)
The Halloween stories used the Cthulhu/Mythos worksheet and ran more smoothly. Well, somewhat more smoothly…
I sat in as a patient for the Halloween Eve game and kept the instructions light, like a third person. This resulted in much stronger stories. The stories all involved a conflict between two alien(?) races; one a race of giant mutant cockroaches that enslaved families and pounced on explorers, and a second, “gray” alien that handed out rune-tech, but couldn’t be counted on in the end. Unfortunately, while these stories did work better, the timeline got confused when the patients wrote themselves into each other’s histories. It did make for quite a conclusion, however!
On Halloween itself, we used the Mythos worksheet again, and created some creepy and complete stories. Sheila’s skill as a storyteller made her tale compelling, haunting and disjointed, much like a disturbing horror novella. (The scene with her entering the haunted stone tableau and losing her way home was very well done; the details she added made the scene pop.) The other tales were also more successful; coherent narratives emerged with a sense of progression.
The meat of the system is simple– very simple. Prompted by a short memory trigger (written at the beginning of the game), the traveller (the person whose memories we’re currently investigating) sets the scene by receiving a guiding question from each other patient. The guiding questions build the scene– and all have to be answered “yes, and…”, which makes everyone’s “questions” true statements and leads to everyone creating your history [or its context] alongside you, the PC’s player.
After the guiding questions, the traveller advances the story to a decision point, where two paths forward are laid out by two patients– one path must be selected. The traveller repeats this process a few times (anywhere from 2-8 per memory being recovered), until they have exhausted the memory.
That’s it for system– there are no die rolls, just accepting the guiding questions as true then embellishing, and picking between proffered paths. It makes for a fascinating, very different play experience. After playing, a couple of players mentioned that a session of Penny would make a great character generation session for many other games. In fact, the Shadowrun GM mused that for such a game, he’d make up the character sheets for the players, depending on what was established during the Penny game…
While the extra experience was beneficial when I returned to run the game the second and third times, not much of the game is in Dr. Peter Tompkins’ hands. What really seemed to help was getting a mix of players who wanted to be challenged in similar ways, who were interested in helping each other build compelling stories.
Some players let me know that the Mythos questionnaire helped quite a bit– the standard questions are vague and don’t have inherent drama, which might be part of why the “extra difficult” contributions cropped up– to make the stories clearly compelling. The Mythos questions also guide the patients into recalling more “traditional character” like activities– exploring, getting caught, and tangling with evil.
I thoroughly recommend this game to your group for a very different session the next time a few people can’t make it, or between campaigns. It has many of the virtues that a board game or card night replacement have– it’s self contained, doesn’t depend on GM prep, and provides a contained experience.
Advice is provided in the later half of the book, where the author talks about the skills that the game helps to develop and the experiences that led him to craft the resulting book. It was amazing how concrete an image some players could conjure when they weren’t worrying about advancing the story via action. That’s a valuable lesson you can take with you to any game.