Our Quiet Year: Autumn
Spring. Summer. Twenty-four weeks have passed in our telling of The Quiet Year, a story-weaving and map-drawing game from Buried Without Ceremony, and our year has been anything but quiet. Our community has shattered into far-flung splinters, tiny communities that were once part of a greater family, all of them grieving past losses, all of them seeking redress — well, except for the goatherds. They just watch their goats get it on all day. But everyone other than them is having a pretty rough time.
And this season looks like it might prove to be the roughest time of all. There’s a reason the folks of the Former World used to call it “The Fall,” after all.
On the Table: Contempt
Four friends and I have been going through The Quiet Year for three weeks now, taking up about a quarter of our weekly Friday game night each time, while our other regulars play in the adjoining room. During the lulls in their own conversation, they overhear our debates, our outrage, our laughter. The most common response I get, after both groups have finished up and we’re taking a break for Italian cream sodas (our game nights are a beast like that), is something like, “That Quiet Year game sounds awesome, but I’m still not sure how it works.”
If you haven’t picked up the gist of it, imagine this: you show up at a friend’s house expecting to GM your custom role-playing game. This is your master work. Your creative opus. It’s nettled at the back of your mind for ages, and embodies everything you value about stories — it’s got exactly the type of deep characters you can relate to, a setting equal measures weird and familiar, a proper balance between narrative tropes and dramatic inversion, and exactly the dash of irony you like. And you want nothing more than to share it with your friends, to have them drink deeply of this rich, dark liquid you’ve prepared; and sure, yeah, to have them marvel at your genius a bit. Heaven knows you deserve it.
Only problem is, it turns out that tonight your buddies are all going to be Game Masters too, complete with foreign ideas about what a “good story” is about, and instead of playing a nice straightforward game, you’re playing a role-playing game with a whole pack of GMs and… well, no players.
That’s The Quiet Year. After a few rounds, this thing you’re creating together is nothing at all like what you originally envisioned. The tale you brought in your head to the table, the perfect self-reflective tragedy, is now also humorous, and kinky, and action-packed, and full of references to things totally outside of your experience. Most of the time this is nothing short of wonderful. Now and then, though, one of your fellow Game Masters is going to have the characters of your shared community make a decision you don’t agree with. And instead of screaming at them, instead of berating them for their lack of dramatic tempo or catharsis, or whatever, you’re going to take a contempt token.
These contempt tokens are signifiers of social tensions, disagreements, friction, and they usually just sit in front of you, signifying. Usually. You can also occasionally put them to use, discarding them when someone does something you greatly agree with, or to enact something selfish into the narrative — though of course that often triggers new contempt tokens in response.
Here’s an example. As the first action of autumn, Tyler drew a card that informed him that a project had finished early. We had three ongoing projects: the small splinter community across the river was exploring the nearby hospital, and the main camp was both building a food shack and holding an investigation into who was responsible for burning down Grandfather Tall Red’s mobile home. Tyler picked that last one, and penned a new chapter of our family narrative, saying that Short Red had found a scapegoat for the arson, a young man named Ferret. Since the Red Clan could see that the community was on the brink of rebellion, and that killing another of their brothers might be the catalyst of a full-blown eruption, Grandfather Tall Red exiled Ferret into the forest with no provisions. In response, Robinson took a contempt token, representing either his own displeasure at the act, or perhaps the cross-section of the community he imagined himself representing.
Our Greatest Fear
The camp is livid about Ferret’s exile, and the instant he disappears into the foliage, a group of the boy’s friends starts a riot and tears down the storage shack that was nearing completion. Lots of folks are mad about that, pointing out that we don’t have much food saved up ever since the storage pit flooded, and the rioters look even sillier when Ferret stumbles back into camp a couple days later, scraped and tan and a bit thinner than when he left, and muttering about something he’d seen at the crest of a hill beyond the forest:
One of The Jackals themselves. The horned scourge. The very same gang we’d feuded with for years until finally Grandfather Rust bought them off with most of our gasoline and we fled many miles to our new home.
Of course, we immediately debate what this means. Ferret lapses into an uninterruptible slumber immediately after delivering his feverish warning, and the family that takes him in says there’s no telling when — or if — he’ll wake up. Grandfather Tall Red would probably like to reinstate Ferret’s exile, but he can see that most of our community is fairly horrified about the idea of dropping a comatose man bearing bad news into the woods to die in his sleep, so he shuts up for once. Still, the question lingers like the stink of our flooded food-pit: have The Jackals followed us here? Did Ferret even really see a Jackal, or was he wrong in the head from starvation and sunstroke?
And if The Jackals are here, what in the Former World can we buy them off with this time?
Another terrible omen follows. An autumn flood interrupts the migration of our goats as they’re herded back across the river to our community, and although the goatherds themselves barely scramble to safety, dozens of horny old goats are washed away. So much for our new surplus of food.
Our Tired Faith
As though it had been planned, someone new shows up on our doorstep. His name is “The Parish,” and he was once a member of our community, a long time and a thousand miles ago. Some of our people greet him as a prophet, probably because he’s super old and has wavy white hair, though after all that’s happened in just the last few months many believers are now skeptical of the man’s appearance. Especially when he gathers everyone together for a camp meeting to deliver bad tidings.
He tells us that The Jackals are returning (“No crap, we already know that,” someone shouts), and their scouts have already spotted us. However, he reminds us of our heritage, how we survived the Calamity and the Former World because we had avoided the debauchery of the era. Also because we had the Holy Symbol, the circle and the Sacred Letter H, to ward off evil. That last part is kind of his main point, because he claims we can keep The Jackals away from our camp by ringing it with the Holy Symbol, forged from the sheet metal we salvaged from the nearby radio tower. The Parish tells us that everyone has worked according to a Plan, from our settling at the base of the radio tower to this very moment.
In the ensuing discussion, many members of our community are predictably unconvinced. They argue that the Sacred Letter didn’t ward off The Jackals the last time they hounded us, that The Parish abandoned us once before, and that we need allies rather than symbols, and maybe we should talk to the mysterious Yurt-Dwellers to the east or send a new diplomatic mission to the Western Community. There are a few who feel that The Parish has returned in the hour of our greatest need, but they’re a distinct minority.
Anyway, there’s far too much going on in camp to begin turning all our sheet metal into a bunch of Sacred Letters. Ferret passes away in the night, but it’s alright because some of our scouts spot a Jackal camp so we don’t really need to confirm their presence with Ferret anymore.
Worse, members of our community stumble across the body of young Sparrow in the forest, badly decomposed and gnawed but still recognizable, and Grandfather Tall Red seizes the opportunity to blame the community to the west. He claims that Grandfather Rust is a traitor and has sought asylum with our enemies, and sends his son Short Red to light fires in the dry grass that rings their town to drive them off. As soon as most of the hunters leave, a few more families sneak out in the night to search for the rest of our family, which they have heard about but actually have no idea where they could be. It’s a mildly ill-advised plan.
Grandfather Tall Red’s plan is also poorly conceived. Why he thought Short Red could burn the grass surrounding the Western Community so shortly after a flood is beyond imagining, and the fires somehow fail to ignite. Still, the expedition is somewhat successful, for our hunters spy Grandfather Rust and his preparations to return to our camp. Short Red holds his position in the nearby woods and sends a messenger to his father asking for instructions.
In the meantime, our scouts spot a large fight between The Jackals and the Yurt-Dwellers to the east. To our surprise, the Yurt-Dwellers wear heavy armor into battle, and rather than getting totally obliterated, both sides take crushing losses. Our feelings are mixed about this. On the one hand, The Jackals aren’t as unbeatable as we previously thought; but on the other, maybe the Yurt-Dwellers are more of a threat than we assumed when they moved into the scrapyard and started drinking copious amounts of alcohol. We plan to watch this situation closely. With any luck (and maybe some Holy Symbols), these two sides will wipe each other out.
Our hopes don’t last long. We finally discover the main Jackal camp, an endless field of campers and tents stretching to the horizon, easily the largest gathering of men since the Calamity. To such a people, a few losses in battle would be meaningless. Apparently the Yurt-Dwellers have also found them and reach similar conclusions, because they retreat from the region, giving up their armor to The Jackals as a bribe to stave off pursuit.
We now see how our enemy operates, following its prey from place to place until it has taken everything it can. The Jackals are parasites, and we are a swollen neck waiting for the leeching.
Grandfather Tall Red is unconcerned, and gives Short Red his orders: attack the Western Community in the night, kill Grandfather Rust, and return with his body. Short Red complies, though the attack doesn’t go as well for our hunters as they’d hoped. Rust has a few good fighters with him, notably the hunter Ford, and when our hunters begin their assault, Ford leads a ferocious counterattack, killing many of his former brethren. Still, he’s outnumbered, and after a few bloody minutes all of Rust’s retinue, from his loyal hunters and elders to Ford and Rust himself, are slaughtered. Short Red returns to camp and announces that the massacre was performed by The Jackals, and argues that we should pursue an alliance with the Western Community to fight them off. Grandfather Tall Red is livid at his son’s version of their deception, but he can’t publicly controvert the story.
The Parish departs once more, leaving one final cryptic warning about The Jackals. Now that our enemy’s return is public knowledge, many members of our family panic, using up our sheet metal to forge the Holy Symbol and set it at all points around the camp. This madness only lasts a short week. Short Red is preparing for more serious business (war) and doesn’t want to waste our metal on silly letters in silly circles, so he sabotages the project, hiding the metal in the bunker to the south for either crafting weapons or for placating our enemy. As he begins to move most of the community to the very same bunker for protection, he’s a man with a plan, and he hopes he’ll have the time to carry it out — especially now that the leaves are down and winter is upon us.
Our family, or at least most of it, is once again on the move. Even though we have hardly anything, hope is our greatest scarcity. Our potential allies have either departed or are probably pretty upset about the attack we made on one of their cabins, we have precious little food stored for winter, and our family is fragmented. Short Red seems to be the leader of the hour, though Grandfather Tall Red is still in charge, and he’s wrestled too long and hard for power to give it up so easily.
Even so, not all hope is lost. Far to the south and east, the other, hidden half of our family is flourishing. While we were caught up in struggles great and petty, they’ve explored the nearby hospital, made new friends living at a nearby Former World motel, and built new houses. Maybe this year hasn’t been quiet for everyone, but at least for a few members of our family, it’s been peaceful.