For going on 35 years now, I have played roleplaying games. Much of that time has been focused on Dungeons & Dragons, that is, classic high fantasy. Much of that time has been focused on science fiction and in particular, cyberpunk through Shadowrun, Traveller, and Mechwarrior/Battletech. Not only did I play roleplaying games centered in these themes, I read fiction in them: J. R. R. Tolkien, Ed Greenwood, Michael A. Stackpole, Orson Scott Card, R. A. Salvatore, William Gibson, and so many, many others. I watched shows and movies steeped in them: Lord of the Rings, Dune, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix, Legend of the Seeker, and more. Those ideas and themes and settings seeped into me and, in part, colored my take on the world.
I think that’s one of the reasons I struggled so long with this review.
One of the very first series of books I read is, what I think, one that can be considered a cross between fantasy and fairy tale: C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books. While I read them all, the style of the telling was not one that really resonated with me. Over the years I have read others, Aesop, Grimm and the like. I have seen more Disney movies than I can count. And I just… struggle with sinking myself into the genre.
And then a marvelous woman named Shanna Germain wrote a sourcebook for the Cypher System that worked with the genre. I’ll be the first to admit that I was willing to wait to get this one, and as much as I enjoy having hard copies of my books, to get it in PDF only. Primarily because I couldn’t see myself using it. Then, Joann and I started this blog, and we decided to get the hard copy so that we could review it. This one fell to me.
I have never been so grateful to be wrong in my whole life.
With that being said, I still struggled with this review. With the Stars are Fire and Stay Alive!, the books, and the genres are straightforward. To me, they very much invoke concrete images, feelings, and thought processes. This book, however, even though it was a toolbox like the other two, simply felt different. It was almost like there was a completely different energy that it provided for a game, and quite honestly, I’ve never encountered anything quite like it before. I will, however, attempt to describe it anyway, as accurately as I can and hope it is enough.
Manufacturing and Production Quality
We Are All Mad Here is a 224 page sourcebook for the Fairy Tale genre that expands on the 5 page introductory section found in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook (pages 302 – 306). The third of the supplemental, genre-based sourcebooks to be released from the Your Best Game Ever Kickstarter, like the others, the book itself is everything I’ve come to expect from Monte Cook Games. As I’ve written in the past, I love the consistent layout style by Art Director Bear Weiter (particularly the margin note aesthetic). The artwork, from cover to cover, invokes a strange mix of whimsy and weird, as if it were trying to blend Numenera and fantasy into some magical amalgamation. While I am no artist and do not always “understand” art, it is extremely evocative in a way I’ve not personally experienced.
The physical entity is exceptional, with quality binding, page material, and inking that does not bleed when touched. The layout is clean, readable in both font and color scheme, and artistic without being distracting to the reader.
Much like the other two toolbox books, We Are All Mad Here focuses the first part of the book on tools and advice for building a Fairy Tale game. I think, because the feel of Fairy Tales is so different than many roleplayers are used to seeing in their games, Shanna spends a little more time here describing the thought process to do so as well as the different types of sub-genres there are. Personally, I had never really thought about the practical differences between Fairy Tales, Fables, Folk Tales, Nursery Rhymes, etc… and so, am really grateful for such a run-down.
There is advice for Building Fairy Tale Settings and, in particular, looking at how to deal with the fact that many players will have at least heard a particular one told before, or read about it, or have seen a movie dealing with a particular story. Do you tell the original story? Do you modify it somehow? And how do you deal with the expectations that accompany each of those? Or do you simply create your own setting whole-cloth and how do you give such a setting a “Fairy Tale feel”? To this end, Shanna introduces the concept of touchstones, or the reductive key elements to a particular story that are absolutely essential. One example of this is Little Red Riding Hood. It is difficult to imagine that a story that is told is a Little Red Riding Hood story without: A girl in red, a wolf, a path through the woods, a grandmother, and probably a woodsman as well. Adding touchstones to your own setting helps create a familiar feel to it that puts Fairy Tales in mind when the players try to immerse themselves into their characters there.
One of the biggest things I struggled wrapping my head around with this genre was the idea that magic in Fairy Tale games was not designed to be contained like it was in fantasy. It is literally everywhere you turn. Much like air or water, it exists in and through everything. I struggled to understand what that meant for crafting a Fairy Tale setting, or adventure, or campaign and what it would look like. There is a section specifically for this on pages 27 and 28 of the book, and in their Twitch stream that I link in the Summary of this post, Shanna, Tammie, and Darcy go into some detail about what this might look and feel like.
Chapter three is about building Fairy Tale Campaigns and gives some adventure “templates” for a GM to use to turn Fairy Tale stories into adventures, along with a bunch of Fairy Tale “story seeds” and what is a remarkably and practically useful checklist for Building a Fairy Tale Adventure on page 37 (that you could easily adapt to other genres – and probably should). There are tips for getting PCs involved and problematic elements found in Fairy Tales that come up (including a big one – lack of Consent) and how to potentially deal with those stories.
Chapter four is about actually running Fairy Tale games. Not just filled with general advice, this chapter also goes over mechanical ways to make Fairy Tale games feel different, such as Curses (both Curse Intrusions and Curse Mode – they’re different) and the methods for their removal, Blessings, unique takes and flavors of standard GM Intrusions, and others. I want to take a brief moment to thank Shanna here for reminding the GM of something that I made a point of noting in a different blog post as well:
“Remember that GM intrusions don’t always mean that something has gone wrong or is bad for the players (unless they are curse intrusions). A GM intrusion could be the arrival of a good omen, the sudden reversal of a curse, or something that seems bad at first (like falling down a rabbit hole) but leads to something wonderful in the end (a whole new world to explore!).We Are All Mad Here, page 53 (emphasis added)
The other thing that can be found in this chapter is a discussion of Consent and Boundaries. At the back of the book is a custom Consent in Gaming form that has been set up with common topics and themes that can be found in Fairy Tale games based on the stories they come from. Particularly with the discussion of problematic elements in chapter three and the potential for discussion of mental health issues in chapter fourteen, this tool is one that really ought to be used liberally.
Chapters five through eight offer advice for players in Fairy Tale games as well as a walkthrough of creating characters in them, complete with equipment and Cyphers and Artifacts that would be appropriate for such games. Chapter nine is a bestiary, but it is different than others Monte Cook Games has published and would be worth repeating in other products if possible, particularly from the standpoint of how it is organized and how it presents the usability of each type of creature/NPC.
In the second section of the book there are three, unattached adventures that GMs can use in their settings. Two of them, The Apple-Pip Witch and I’ll Gnaw Your Bones, are presented in the Cypher Short format. For a primer on that, you can download Monte Cook Games free Cypher Shorts supplement. The third is a full adventure called Between Worlds that is presented in a more traditional style.
Finally, in the third section of the book, we come to the part where in each of these toolbox books, the author has presented for us a setting of what a world set in their genre might look like. Shanna Germain here gives us the Heartwood, a setting that leans hard into mental health and the challenges and even benefits of dealing with such. Before the setting, she spends a chapter on Mental Health in Gaming and discusses both why someone might want to tackle this topic in a roleplaying campaign and how one might do so with sensitivity and grace. Multiple times, she emphasizes that this is not intended to be therapy, though in expression, that can happen (and we often see that in writing), and that it is not necessary to delve into this deeply or at all to play in a Fairy Tale game.
The Heartwood as a setting was designed as a metaphor for the way mental health issues might affect each of us. The heartwood of a tree is a stronger, darker material, more resilient to disease and decay. Often, as people deal with mental health issues, the coping techniques they learn from qualified health professionals strengthen them in ways that make them, like the heartwood of a tree, more resilient and resistant to future issues.
Many of the characters presented in the Heartwood setting struggle with internal issues. While I have not played a game in this setting, as a GM and a writer myself, I can imagine with relative ease the depth and potential for profound roleplaying opportunities and emergent themes. One of my favorite things in this book is the list and discussion of Character Arcs that have been customized for this specific setting. I love the idea of Character Arcs and anything that strengthens them as a tool for immersion is a fantastic thing in my opinion. Also included at the end of this section are two more full adventures set specifically in the Heartwood to get new GMs started playing there.
The appendix adds a heavy loading of inspiration both from film and text, and indexing to the book (a welcome change – I love the ability to reference things better). As an aside, and perhaps as a final thing that impressed me with this book, I have to praise the margin notes. So many of them deal with the history of Fairy Tales and the genre along with some historical notes. For example, there is one in the chapter on Mental Health in Gaming on page 160 that sticks out in my mind:
“You might remember that one of the characters Alice meets in Alice in Wonderland is the Mad Hatter. It is likely that he was so named because of the symptoms that hatters (also called milliners) suffered due to the use of mercury in hat-making. Chronic mercurial poisoning led to hallucinations, anxiety, memory loss, and tremors.”We Are All Mad Here, p. 160 (margin)
There are so many gems like this scattered throughout the book that both surprised and delighted me, drawing me further into the genre. It was almost like Shanna knew that I was coming in with a dreadful lack of background knowledge and knew what I would need to know ahead of time. Like she wrote the book for someone exactly like me. I know that is probably not the case, but I am grateful all the same.
I honestly do not have a critique for this book except perhaps this: There is so much in this book that it is difficult to wrap my mind around it all. Especially as someone coming from outside the genre, I am overwhelmed by how densely packed the information in this book is. If I were adding anything else, it would be even more practical examples of applying the concepts in the first few chapters, though things like the tables of GM Intrusions and the Curse/Blessing mechanics already deal with this to a certain extent. Perhaps adding a section with more concrete advice on describing a magic rich setting. An example of this might look similar to the tabletop role-playing examples found in the Revised Cypher System Rulebook pages 439 – 442 or the Stars are Fire pages 9 – 10.
As part of their promotion of the book, Shanna Germain, Tammie Ryan, and Darcy Ross did a Twitch stream discussion of the book, the genre and gave some advice on running it that can be found HERE. Additionally, the gang over at Cypher Unlimited did a interview with Shanna Germain talking about it before the book’s release that can be found on their YouTube Channel. I have also, fortunately, got a campaign coming up to play in that will be using this heavily, so I get to dip my toe in so to speak. I’m interested to see how that goes.
Would I recommend this supplement to anyone? Without reservation. I can already feel some of the ideas presented in it seeping into my “GM-brain” to pop up who-knows-where. And although I have absolutely no idea what you, the reader, are going to get out of this book, I can only assume that it will be different than what I did. And maybe, just maybe, that’s both the point and the beauty and genius of Shanna Germain’s product, We Are All Mad Here.
- Josh Walles