Metatopia 2014 Recap: Part 4, Hyperreality

Hyperreality is a bonkers, gonzo game of reality game show parody. Tim Rodriguez, of Brooklyn Indie Games and Dice + Food + Lodging, ran a play test session for Adrian Stein, Quinn Murphy, Fred Hicks, Julia Ellingboe, and me. If Spın̈al Tap turns it up to eleven, Hyperreality goes to thirteen. 

I’m not going to go into the specifics of the story because it goes weird and potentially offensive in a lot of ways. Which is to say, Hyperreality is sort of a Cards Against Humanity take on an RPG. I don’t feel it’s a fully accurate description but CAH seems to be the shorthand when people discuss Hyperreality. A more accurate description is an absurdist or really transgressive comedian. The story being crafted on stage drives the audience to a state of hysteria; you don’t know why you’re laughing other than the juxtaposition of the images and narrative is so beyond comprehension you don’t have any other choice.

Set Up

The game setting is that of a competitive reality show where the contestants are fighting for “The Ultimate Prize”. Everyone at the table works together to brainstorm and create a terrible, horrible reality TV game show. The most bizarre and over the top idea isn’t just welcome, it’s probably the best idea for this game. Our game show wound up being “Doctors Without Boundaries”, a game of medical malpractice and blatant disregard for medical ethics. Our host was Ed Begley, Jr., who was still riding off his fame from St. Elsewhere. It was quickly decided that the them song for Doctors Without Boundaries would be a dubstep remix of the St. Elsewhere theme. This led to a lot of people saying dt-dt-dt-BWAAAAAAAAAM while describing a transition.

There is a fairly traditional GM role that involves playing the game show host and presenting the challenges to the contestants. The players each create a single contestant. The character sheet is simple: it’s a name and a selection of seven traits or descriptors. The player assigns four traits initially, each of which is a specific category. I forget what the exact categories are but they are close to Archetype, Motivation, Specialty, and Appeal. The last three traits on the character sheet are Secrets. Each player and the GM writes three or more Secrets and tosses them in a pile in the center.  Each player then pulls three random Secrets from the pile and adds them to the character sheet.

I was playing Rick “Doosh” DuChateau. His archetype was the Ivy League Frat President Medical Student, appeal was Really Ridiculously Good Looking, specialty was Cardiac Surgery, and Motivation was To Be Famous. My intention was to play him as a cross between Derek Zoolander and Captain Awesome from Chuck. Two of his Secrets were Made a Pact with a Demon and Really a Space Princess Bent on Taking Over the Airwaves. These clearly have an impact on my concept of the character. Some of the other secrets were From the FutureRussian Mob BossPossibly the Anti-Christ, and my favorite: A Furry with Several Internal Organs Replaced with Chimp Parts

Right off the bat you can see that Secrets is where the juice is. Players may come up with over the top characters from the get-go but adding in a layer of random, bizarre, crowdsourced details to a character really takes it past eleven and up to thirteen. What I love about it is it’s like Cutthroat Kitchen – you have an outline of what’s going to happen and then it gets twisted all to hell by something in play.

We went around the table and introduced our characters. Adrian had told us how at DexCon he had played the same character in every game of the con, one Dinesh O’Brien, and he broke out the Dinesh O’Brien table tent for this game, too. Dinesh was a patronizing asshole with the specialty of Literally Everything. Quinn made a character named Adam with the archetype of About to Be Expelled from Med School. Adam was very excitable and competitive over all the wrong things. Fred made Jake Jakeson, a Combat Vet… erinarian. The way Jake was played it was clear he was suffering from PTSD and wasn’t really sleeping much anymore. Julia’s character was named Millie. I forget Millie’s traits but she was constantly whispering into a cellphone and texting people. Turns out she was a Russian Mob Boss and was trying to put out hits on the rest of us.

I’m a seasoned role player but I come from a gaming background that didn’t put much emphasis on inhabiting characters. The one time in college that I tried to create a specific voice and accent for my character I was told to knock that shit off. More than any other game at Metatopia, this table had me self-conscious of my role playing ability. Quinn and Fred completely embodied their characters with manic energy and a wild eyed enthusiasm that was intimidating. Julia was much more reserved but was constantly doing things in character, like holding up a fake cell phone and talking in hushed tones. Adrian’s patronizing use of “Yeaaaaaaaaaah” was quickly memed by Fred the rest of the convention. Top kudos to all the players for really great characterization.

Tim took a few minutes to set up our first challenge and away we went on a twisting, spiraling descent into laughter-filled madness.

Basic Mechanics

The basic mechanics of Hyperreality are a card-based form of rock-paper-scissors based on your portrayal in a scene. Face trumps Star, Star trumps Villain, and Villain trumps Face. During a challenge, two characters are set to face off. There’s some narration, the cards are revealed, and then narration concludes to reflect who won the face off. The next two characters are picked and play goes around until each character has been in two conflicts. That’s pretty much it. Everything else was fluidly assigned, discarded, added, modified, spun, and generally tested in play.

Play Testing

Hyperreality was the most actively play tested game of my Metatopia. By that I mean Tim was trying new things, messing with the timing of choosing your card, narrating, revealing cards, and how secrets work. There was a lot of, “Now try this!” going on that gave the experience a big feeling of anything goes. The rules were fluid and in motion so we were free to cut loose with the fiction.

Some of the more interesting discussions was about how to add a bit more strategy and tactics to the cards. This would happen by forcing an assignation of Face, Villain, and Star to the Archetype, Appeal, and Specialty but letting the Motivation be assigned a card by the player. At the beginning of the game, the player then gets dealt cards according to mix on the character sheet. We saw in play how cool and weird the secrets were (in a game all about being cool and weird) so there was also a lot of discussion about how to give them some use mechanically in the game.

Embrace the Weirdness

More than even the idea of edgy content, Hyperreality thrives on creating cognitive dissonance in play. The more moments you can create that make the other players go, “What?!” and then giggle nervously, the better.

Playing Doosh seemed pretty flat to me until I embraced my Secrets. Sure, I got to use a confessional to describe how parkour was great cardio and then narrate how Doosh tried to rush past Dinesh in a crowded ER using parkour but that was pretty mundane, by the standards of Hyperreality. Once the first challenge was over, I described how Doosh went to his room and changed out of the challenge scrubs and into what is best described as a monstrous combination of Barbarella, David Lynch’s Dune and 1970s Time Lord costuming. There was a miniskirt and a bolero vest with a huge collar. It was all silver lamé. I was foreshadowing my secret of being a space princess and making people giggle at how outlandish it was. This made Doosh weird enough to finally be interesting next to the other characters.

Later I chose to reveal Made a Pact with a Demon and it led to the best confessional shot ever: a hulking, gravelly voiced demon sitting in the confessional box saying, “Y’know, I met Doosh a few years back and I thought to myself that kid’s goin’ places. So I got in on the ground floor of Doosh, Inc., know what I’m sayin’?” as flames slowly licked up the curtains. Playing that secret also freed me up from being constrained by silly little things like reality in the narrative.

I’d like to close with a few of the tamer quotes from the game and offer a shorthand description for Hyperreality. “Organ theft is hilarious!” and “Go team freak!” were some of the crack-up lines of the game that I feel I can actually share. My proposed shorthand description is this: Hyperreality is like Fiasco turned up to eleven.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.
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