Beak, Feather, & Bone
A Map Labeling Game
Recently, Tyler Crumrine of Possible Worlds Games contacted Rolling Boxcars regarding an upcoming Kickstarter campaign. In that press release, Beak, Feather, & Bone is mentioned. Having no prior knowledge of the game, I was intrigued. Tyler kindly provided us with a review copy. What do the parts of a bird and map labeling have to do with each other?
Beak, Feather, & Bone is a map-labeling competitive roleplaying game that is a collaborative world-building, world-defining tool playable for up to 2-10 players or solitaire. It is part of a group of indie roleplaying games that are about defining a setting and less about narrative roleplaying. This sub-genre of setting development games includes other titles such as Microscope: A Fractal Role-playing Game of Epic Histories, Kingdom: A Role-playing Game about Communities (a 2nd edition is currently in development), Archipelago, and Dawn of Worlds. Each is about building, defining, or re-defining a specific place in which a game is set or may later be set, while map-making games like The Quiet Year by Avery Alder (a personal favorite of this reviewer, see my review here) and archetype-centric games like those that use D. Vincent and Meguey Baker’s Apocalypse World engine have influenced Beak, Feather, & Bone’s design. Keep in mind the idea of this sub-genre as we examine Beak, Feather, & Bone.
To get started, a few resources all gamers have handy are needed. These include the unlabeled map (provided in the PDF), a stack of note cards, writing and coloring utensils, a standard deck of playing cards, and a 10-sided die (optional). Keeping in mind that players are not building a city but rather taking turns claiming and describing various locations throughout the city. As buildings are claimed, the city’s narrative and its inhabitants will emerge, including major NPCs and shifting power dynamics. With the map in the center of the table, the game setup begins.
Through mutual agreement, players identify one building in the center of the map as the “Seat of Power,” which comes into play during the end game. Players then assume a Community Role, representing one or more community groups or factions such as the miners, the farmers, the thieves, to name a few. Roles are chosen, assigned, or randomized using the optional d10. Each of the ten Community Roles is represented by a Ravenfolk dressed in appropriate attire, as pictured. A wonderful treatise on the “Ravenfolk,” who are at the heart of the larger community within the game, their language and roleplaying tips to incorporate birdfolk into fantasy roleplaying games are included. Finally, players choose a colored writing utensil for coloring in buildings on the map. With setup complete, gameplay begins.
The person who most recently used a physical map starts the game. Once determined, that player and each subsequent player will follow the same turn sequence until the game ends.
- Draw a card
- Select a structure on the map and claim it
- Annotate a notecard with Beak, Feather, & Bone notes
- Play passes to the next player
Draw a card – The card suit determines what role a structure will play or has played in the community. ♥ – a social purpose, ♦ – a financial purpose, ♣ – a future purpose, or ♠ – a past purpose. The card’s value determines how much influence your faction has in the community and is used to determine who will have control of the Seat of Power during the end game. Face cards are worth zero influence.
Select a structure on the map and claim it – With your Community Role, Suit, and Influence Value in mind, select a structure and claim it by coloring it in. Write the turn number next to it on the map—this is purely for organizational purposes.
Annotate a notecard with Beak, Feather, & Bone notes – At the top of a notecard, annotate the color and turn number (i.e., Green 4). On the rest of the card, write three sentences describing the building. Each one, respectively, is titled Beak, Feather, & Bone.
- Beak – What do people say about this place? How would a non-player character describe it?
- Feather – Describe the structure’s appearance. What does it look like on the outside?
- Bone – Regardless of its appearance or reputation, what is the building like on the inside? This could be a physical description of the interior or an insight into the structure’s purpose.
Face cards (Jack, Queen, King) add additional details to the notecard. On the backside (currently blank), the player will also describe a rival from another player’s faction who opposes that building’s purpose. These sentences are also labeled Beak, Feather, & Bone.
- Beak – What is your rival’s reputation?
- Feather – What is your rival’s appearance?
- Bone – What is your rival’s true motivation?
Play passes to the next player – Play continues and is passed from player to player until a prescribed number of turns have elapsed or the deck runs out of cards.
The game reaches “the end game” when all the players’ turns are complete. They then add up all the cards they’ve drawn over the course of the game. The faction with the highest total has the most sway and influence in the city and controls the Seat of Power. They then proceed to color it and describe it. It’s here that the game is over, but its usefulness as a GM tool is just beginning. Here, much but not all of the map will be colored in showing clusters of faction-owned structures. The notecards will have lots of basic details about these locations and what is likely a handful of major Non-Player Characters. Now GMs can take the map and notecards and, using that information, begin to further flesh out the city and weave it into a new or existing campaign.
The gameplay in Beak, Feather, & Bone is distinct, and gamers who really appreciate collaborative world-building and world-defining will find it enjoyable. I find the “competitive” element of the game to be annoying but necessary to the overall design. The competitive aspect is left solely to chance by way of card draws; players have absolutely no way to establish a strategy or influence the outcome. Conversely, the drawing of cards is integral to the game’s design and determines who controls the Seat of Power. We could have done without calling it a competitive element!
The short treatise on Ravenfolk and their language is a pleasant read. Although it’s system-neutral, it does tip its hat to some other roleplaying games that have birdfolk as a racial/ancestral option, without naming names, of course. The discussion on the Ravenfolk also puts much of the game’s thematic elements into context. If the resulting city is married up with the Ravenfolk, an even more fully fleshed-out city takes shape.
As a tool for fleshing out a city and outlining major NPCs, I think it hits the mark. Being able to handle up to ten players enhances the collaborative nature of its design. Beak, Feather, & Bone is definitely a collaborative tool GMs should look at, especially if other similar games are already part of their “GM’s Toolbox.”
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