Interview: John Scott Tynes of PuppetLand

In Comic Books, Gaming, Interviews by Iron Squid2 Comments

Stumbling around I discovered that an old Roleplaying game has come into reprint by Arc Dream Publishing! I got to sit down and chat with John Scott Tynes of Puppetland. Let’s get to it.

IS: Me

JT: John Scott Tynes




IS: For those who aren’t familiar with Puppetland, can you explain a little bit about it?

JT: Puppetland is a storytelling game set in a grim world of make-believe. In a magical land of puppets, the cruel puppet Punch has risen up and slain the Maker of all puppets, taking his flesh for himself and becoming the ruler of the land. His cruel decrees are enforced by his brutal army of Nutcrackers and by his Boys, magical puppets Punch constructed from the flesh of the dead Maker.

All the puppets of Puppetland fear Punch and his minions. But Judy, who once loved Punch, still possesses the final tear of the Maker which she caught in a thimble. Someday she hopes to see Punch overthrown and the Maker somehow brought back to life.
Players in the game are good puppets struggling against the rule of Punch. Your adventures may include outwitting Nutcrackers to free a prisoner, discovering a secret area inhabited by strange puppets, exploring the world beyond Puppetland in search of secrets of the Maker, and many more.

 Puppetland is a diceless storytelling game in which the entire session is limited to sixty minutes. Players only speak in the dialogue of their character. They never describe their actions but instead say things like, “Come on everyone, let’s grab that Nutcracker and tie him up!” The Puppetmaster then responds with storybook exposition such as, “All the puppets advanced on the Nutcracker. And though he struggled mightily, they soon had him bound with stout ropes.” Together, therefore, the players and the Puppetmaster weave a desperate story in which puppets race against the clock to save the day.



IS: What goes into making a storytelling roleplaying game?

JT:  Puppetland is primarily concerned with creating a story through group improvisation. While Puppetland features Tales similar to RPG adventures, the actual play at the table is focused on crafting a narrative through words. If you recorded the audio of a Puppetland session and transcribed it onto paper it would read just like a storybook. The players speak their dialogue, the Puppetmaster narrates and speaks the dialogue of the other puppets, and the whole thing together never breaks context. For one hour you are in the world of Puppetland telling a communal story.

To achieve this goal, I designed the game with several crucial features. The limitation of one hour is to ensure the story is both brief and efficient, driving swiftly towards a climax, without becoming too tiring for everyone to maintain the tone and style of how they speak. The restrictions on how players speak and how the Puppetmaster speaks set a very particular balance of power in which the players originate ideas for actions through dialogue and the Puppetmaster then resolves them as best serves the story. Puppetmastering is definitely a challenge but once you’ve seen it in action, it becomes easier to do it yourself.

IS: What can we expect from the printed edition?  What kind of changes have been made from the free version?

JT: This new edition of Puppetland is greatly revised and expanded. The core rules are substantially longer now with more help for the Puppetmaster and a lot more material about the setting and characters. I’ve also added a section on creating Tales for Puppetland games, providing a clear structural template for building your own Tales that works well with the nature of the game and the one-hour limit on play. And I made revisions to the intrinsic puppet attributes so that they have clearer differentiation and relations to more readily resolve the conflicts of the story.

In addition to the main rules, there are a lot of substantial additions. The new Puppetland book begins with a storybook magnificently illustrated by Heather Hudson in which you see firsthand how Punch overthrew the Maker. It brings the story to life in a way that reads and looks like a children’s storybook, but of course the focus of the story is how a psychopath learns to dominate and murder his victims. Because of the success of the Kickstarter we were also able to recruit a lot of very talented game designers to contribute original Tales so new Puppetmasters have plenty of adventures to choose from. And finally the Kickstarter also funded a new essay I’ve written about my relationship with Puppets and how Puppetland came to be.

All of this is beautifully illustrated by a number of artists including stunning mixed-media illustrations by Samuel Araya, a brilliant artist from Paraguay whom I’ve worked with on projects across many years. We also have outstanding work from the aforementioned Heather Hudson as well as Raven Mimura, Hollie Mengert, and a wonderful cover by Alejandro Téran which originally appeared years ago on the Spanish edition of Puppetland by Edge Entertainment.


IS: How does Puppetland differ from those such as DnD and Pathfinder?

JT:Fundamentally it’s not that different — there is a group of players and a game master sitting at a table. The game master brings the basic story. The players react to situations and pursue their goals. Together they sort of negotiate their way through a communal storytelling experience. All of this is common to nearly every roleplaying game. 

Puppetland is much more concerned with storytelling and specifically with helping players craft a very particular kind of story, one that sounds like a child’s storybook and that results in a frisson of dissonance between the format, which we associate with innocence and childhood, and the content, which is about a murderous and sadistic despot and the brave souls who oppose him. When Puppetland works well, the result is both charming and chilling in equal measure.


IS: What kind creations can you make? Hand Puppets..can I make a sock puppet?

JT: We have certainly had a lot of sock puppets in Puppetland games over the years! Puppets have a short list of attributes which are descriptive rather than numerical. The sets of attributes are This Puppet Is, This Puppet Can, and This Puppet Cannot. Each type of puppet — finger puppets, hand puppets, marionettes, and shadow puppets — have different intrinsic attributes. But each player then also adds their own attributes to the list to express their puppet’s personality, interests, and special skills. All of this is to differentiate the puppets and give both the the players and the Puppetmaster opportunities for meaningful actions, vulnerabilities, and dramatic surprises.


IS: If you could design a Puppet in Puppetland, what kind would it be?

JT: I have a soft spot for finger puppets. As a kid my mother sewed me a set of Punch & Judy finger puppets with which I wrote scripts and performed puppet shows. Finger puppets are so small and can be so intricate, yet their ability to express themselves is limited to very simple movements and the power of the human voice. Even hand puppets are far more expressive. So delivering an effective performance with a finger puppet is very challenging but humans also have such an ability to suspend their disbelief for the sake of a story that even finger puppets can make you cry.

Creative freedom is one of the worst things in the world. It’s when you have to struggle against a straitjacket of limitations that I believe the most surprising creative breakthroughs are made. Finger puppets represent this to me and so I am particularly fond of them.


IS: How does it feel knowing that such a horrifying concept such as Puppetland had such a wide array of followers?

JT: Puppetland had an odd history in that it emerged very early in the development of indie/storytelling games and then disappeared from the market for years. I first published it in 1995 on my website, where I think it was probably the first original RPG ever published on the web. It was published as a booklet in 1999 and within a couple of years it was out of print. So it’s been off the market for well over a decade, during which we’ve seen all sorts of innovative storytelling games come out. There was a core of people who remembered it and loved it, but it pretty much sat out an entire generation of tabletop game design. I’m thrilled it is now back in its colorful new clothes to join the party.


IS: What else can we expect from Puppetland?

JT: Puppetland isn’t the kind of game that needs a long product line of faction books and sourcebooks and so on. It’s very self-contained. But I could imagine doing another collection of Tales down the road.
First and foremost, I just want to see lots of gamers try this experience and discover what it has to offer. There are some terrific Actual Play transcripts online from past Puppetland groups that really demonstrate the power and fun of the game and so I look forward to hearing new adventures from new players for years to come. An unplayed game is just a tombstone. I really hope Puppetland finds its audience and helps people create powerful stories the world would otherwise have never known.


Thank you so much, John, for sitting down with me! Stay tuned for a contest where you can win a copy of the new Puppetland Tabletop game, just in time for the holidays!