Gloom: Circular Storytelling, Death and Dismemberment


Mister Giggles is a clown. He’s also a skeleton. As such, his challenges as an entertainer of children are legion. In the pursuit of his craft he’s overcome many hardships, suffered many defeats. Not the least of which was that one time, when trying a new act, juggling poodles, the hungry, little dogs set upon him, gnawing his bones and forcing him to flee his tent. It’s been a hard-knock life for Mister Giggles, but having fled to the hills (away from the poodles) and had a moment to clear his head, hear the roar of the crowd from the distance, see the far-off glow of the footlights and smell the cotton candy, he’s realized once again that the circus is his home. His heart (or what serves him for one) fills as he experiences a brief moment of contentment, and I, as the player of the game Gloom, earn several points. I am now losing.

Gloom is a storytelling tool disguised as an RPG, packaged as a card game, and it’s brilliant. Designed by Keith Baker, the game features a deck of transparent plastic cards with a stacking modifier mechanic that’s insanely simple, yet deviously deep. The game comes with four separate “families” of quirky characters, allowing for two to four players. Available expansion packs add one family each, bumping that number up to six, but the game is easily playable by two, making it a perfect couple game – of which there are a depressing few.

Each player starts by picking a family and drawing a number of event, death or modifier cards (or others, if you have the expansions). The players then take turns modifying their own and each other’s characters and telling stories to explain each change. The goal is to kill your characters after having provided them the most depressing existence possible. Points are taken away for various miseries and awarded for the odd joyful event. The player with the most negative score wins. The trick is to play negative cards on your characters and positive cards on your opponent’s. The events described on the cards are mostly simple descriptions, such as “pursued by poodles.” It’s up to you to make it interesting.

In the case of Mister Giggles, I’d been dealt a crushing blow. He was well into the negative when my opponent tortured him with an epiphany. I had to act fast, ruin his life some more and then end it.

On my next turn I played the “broke many bones” card. Mister Giggles, having decided to return to his circus home with a full heart and renewed sense of purpose, lost his balance evading the pursuing poodles and tripped over his big, floppy shoes. He fell to the bottom of the hill, shattering every bone of his body, and sending him way back into the negative. On my next turn I killed him.

Harkening back to the time when kids would entertain each other for hours by debating which superhero could kill who, and ruminating over what would happen if such and such teacher met such and such an end by ingesting acid instead if her morning coffee (if your school district will arrest you for thinking such thoughts, please disregard), Gloom reinvents the circular storytelling exercise as a party game, and makes for the most fun I’ve had in years.

Aside from the joy of storytelling, Gloom requires a bit of strategic thinking and the ability to turn one character’s fortune into misfortune – or vice versa – at a moment’s notice. The game can be played without telling stories (if you’re creativity-challenged), but half of the fun is turning a seemingly innocuous card – “tormented by ticks” – into a harrowing tale of one animated, plush bear’s struggle against sleeplessness as he’s slowly tortured over the course of weeks by the incessant ticking of the wristwatch buried beneath his floorboards by a careless workman. Certain cards include side effects, such as requiring one or more players to draw new cards or discard their entire hands, and if you don’t have a death card handy when you need one, the game might be lost.

Mister Giggles meets his untimely end: “choked by a tie.” He is found, so my story goes, by a stagehand, who hurries to collect the clown’s many pieces in order to rush him to the circus prop master, who will surely repair him using epoxy and steel pins. (This had happened before.) The stage hand sweeps Mister Giggles into his large, fateful shoes and secures the bundle with Mister Giggles’ floppy, striped clown tie. Unfortunately (and unpredictably), this suffocates Mister Giggles, whose breathing apparatus (whatever that may be) is now smothered by the voluminous cloth of the tie. How one can go about killing an undead skeleton clown is irrelevant; this is the only death card I have, and dammit, this clown must die!

Mister Giggles meets his untimely end, but I still lose the game. My opponent’s animated bear dies a particularly gruesome death after having been bothered by beggars, and dies having lived a far more pathetically sad life than any of my circus freaks. Several days later, I try again with the down-and-out acting troupe inhabiting Le Canard Noir, and with my black ducks, I am finally triumphant. Each of these poor souls lives haplessly miserable lives and die particularly inglorious deaths. I hope I’m never eaten by bears, devoured by weasels or drowned by a duck, but so long as comedy is watching someone else fall into an open sewer and die, I’ll continue to find pleasure playing Gloom.

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