I don’t really have time to write a session report, but the excellent experience my group had playing The Death of the Gilded Age by Nathan Paoletta on Sunday last fairly demands that I do. Every so often I have such a positive experience playing a game that I have to clear the decks and share it with everyone I can.
The Death of the Gilded Age is a simple and deftly structured storytelling game with a beautiful Art Nouveau-inspired design.
The players use the game’s three play-mats and a standard deck of playing cards to construct a narrative of the decline and fall of a prominent figure over the course of one torrid party. The game mechanics provide a basis for the big turns in the story and help to give a light structure for the role-playing scenes in between. (I’m hoping to do a review that delves more into the mechanics, but for now I’ll focus more on the story elements of my group’s recent session.)
Setting the Stage
The first play-mat for the game prompts the players to set up the particulars of the party (when and where it happens) and the host (who they are and what his/her reputation is). As part of this opening “mini-game” we discovered that our party was to take place in “a prestigious dance hall in trendy downtown… at the break of day, as the sun rises.”
We worked together to make sense out of those pieces of information. The group decided that the time period of our session would be the early teens before WWI, and we all liked the idea of setting the game in nearby Oakland. Joe, who’d played the card that determined the location of the party, suggested it be called the Club Cabana, and we went with it. It seemed odd that a dancehall would have a party that early in the morning, so I suggested that it was the continuation of a party from the night before.
We decided our guests were all dog tired, but that our host wouldn’t let them leave until “something” specific happened… and what about that host?
The first play-mat provided guidance for that as well. Our host turned out to be “a captain of industry, strong and resolute” with a reputation of “philanthropy to some and callousness to others.” We settled on the name Howard Willard Manchester, a shipping magnate with some questionable side action down on the docks. Manchester’s fat-cat buddies greet him as HW, but the men on the docks just call him Boss.
As the story set-up evolved with some nice contributions from Deanna and Leslie we discovered that HW was celebrating the birth of his first grandson (Little HW) by his only child, his daughter Bess.
We decided that Club Cabana was a hot “Negro” jazz club that had lately sprung up in Oakland. The Cabana had gained instant popularity with a white audience that felt racy when they were “slumming it” over on the wrong side of the tracks.
With a world starting to form around our initial choices, it was time to move to the next play-mat. In this stage of the game three random cards are drawn and put face down to form the Wrenches pile. Each Wrench is a complication the narrative turns on, each suit representing a different social dimension of a challenge or event that ratchets up the action.
The second play-mat also directs the players to take five random cards. The players use these cards to influence and push the coming story-telling/role-playing scenes in various directions.
With the stage set for the next part of the game we flipped the first Wrench card. It was a Spade, which represented “Reputation: name cast into doubt, threats and promises, revelations from the past.” I put out the idea of an old mistress showing up, but Deanna topped that with a much stronger choice. She felt that it would be even more damning for HW to keep the party going even though he knew that his only child, Bess, had actually died in childbirth during the night.
We all loved the idea. (And as it turned out the news of the death slowly making its way to HW ended up forming the spine of the first “act” of the game.)
Since the first play-mat had already given us our context and our protagonist it was a simple matter to jump into making scenes. (We shifted character hats during these role-playing scenes as we needed to, though Leslie ended up being our main interpreter for the role of HW.)
With plenty of background material, we dove into scene work (and role-playing!) in earnest…
The Story Begins
Outside Club Cabana smoke from an inland fire paints the Sunday morning sunrise a lurid red. Inside, HW dozes fitfully on the edge of the stage as the weary band from overnight packs up. The exhausted attendees slump on chairs around the edge of the dance hall. The ice sculpture from Saturday night’s festivities has melted into an unrecognizable lump.
Mr. Rhodes (the club owner) gently tugs HW’s shoulder and asks him if “they hadn’t all better call it a night.” HW springs to his feet and shouts that they’re just getting started. He insists that a new band be brought in and that Mr. Rhodes keep the food, drink, and women coming. (The guests mutter to each other, but they all know you don’t leave one of HW’s parties until it’s over.)
Why can’t HW let the party end? After a quick discussion we decide that HW wants to bed Jessie Smith, the club’s chanteuse, and won’t let the party end until he’s had her.
A fresh-faced telegram boy wanders in as a new band starts to set up. He runs into a bleary Ogden, HW’s personal secretary. (Since each player’s hand is his or her currency to bring characters into the game, I play a face card to bring Ogden on stage.) Ogden blanches when he sees the contents of the telegram. HW’s grandson, Little HW, is alive and well, but his daughter, Bess, has died from complications.
In complete shock Ogden stumbles to the bar for a drink. The bartender can tell something isn’t right and asks Ogden about the telegram. He demurs, which makes the bartender even more curious. Knowing that Mr. Rhodes would want to know what’s in the message, the bartender sends one of the club “girls,” Roxie, off to a private room with him. She entertains him and manages to steal the telegram away from him.
The telegram gets passed to Mr. Rhodes, who decides he has to let HW know himself. This leads to the climax of our first Act. Rhodes shows HW the telegram…
How will HW respond?
We already know that HW can’t let the party end just yet. He crumples up the telegram and puts it in his pocket. Gazing at Jessie as she starts warming up with the band, he tells Mr. Rhodes to send her up to his private suite once she’s done with her set.
At this point we felt that the first “Act” was over and that it was time for another Wrench card. The second Wrench was a Club, which represented, “Fame: admirers and stalkers, commitments and obligations.”
After a brief discussion we decided that it would be perfect if the press were to show up. They’ve gotten their hands on the information that Bess is dead, and they’re going to show up for some timely character assassination… a real “Nero fiddles while Rome burns” sort of piece about HW.
Since it is Sunday morning, only the most eager-beaver scribes will be out trolling for headlines. And so Rhoby Wilson, gal reporter, is born (thanks to a face card play from Deanna). Rhoby calls up her photographer pal Ansel Adams*, and tells him to get to the Club Cabana pronto.
Meanwhile things are just getting seedier at the party. Up in his lair above the stage, HW salivates over Jessie through a pane of one-way glass. When she wraps up her set she downs a shot and starts the long walk upstairs. She doesn’t have any illusions about what HW wants… and she suspects she’ll have to satisfy him one way or another.
With Ansel (and camera) in tow, Rhoby barges in and makes a beeline for HW’s suite. Inside the suite things are just starting to heat up between Jessie and HW when there’s a banging on the door. HW sends Jessie out through a secret exit. He opens the door to find out what’s going on. He discovers his bodyguard barely holding Rhoby off. Ansel snaps a quick shot through the half-open door. Still smarting from the flash, HW responds to Rhoby’s probing questions with mock outrage. He says he claims he wants to be by himself to “mourn.”
Ansel and Rhoby retreat to the alley behind the club, and run into Jessie. Rhoby tries to get some information out of her as a new ice sculpture arrives. (We had some fun picking something as inappropriate as possible. In the end Leslie came up with the perfectly awful idea of a nude cherub with a little tube for pissing out champagne.)
The story drops into a bit of a lull here, so we decide to use our last Wrench. We flip the final card and discover that it’s a Diamond, which represents “Wealth: It’s Presence or absence, Gold-diggers, Debtors and Creditors.”
We’d established early on that HW’s son-in-law was a police detective named Gleason. HW loathes Gleason and only puts up with his marriage to Bess because she loves him so much. Gleason, in turn, hates HW and all his shady dealings. With Bess gone he has no reason to look the other way anymore. Gleason, just part of the background before, is now set to take center stage.
Since the last Wrench involves wealth, we decide that Gleason has arranged a series of lightning raids on all of HW’s illegal holdings. Gleason wants to destroy his hated father-in-law, advance his own career, and (perhaps) secure the legitimate part of HW’s fortune for his son.
The phone in HW’s suite rings. It’s his accountant. He speaks in code, but lets HW know he’s headed to Mexico with the cooked books just one step ahead of his son-in-law.
Meanwhile Rhoby watches as a line of police cars pull up outside the Club. Gleason gets out, and as his men start to follow suit, he shouts at them that he’s going to “take care of this himself.” Rhoby and Ansel gather themselves quickly and head into the club in Gleason’s wake.
Gleason is outraged when he notices the ice sculpture and realizes that it is supposed to be his son. He flips over the table and storms up the stairs to confront HW… only to discover that his father-in-law has flown the coop!
After a quick conversation with Mr. Rhodes, Gleason discovers that HW has slipped out a secret exit down into the sewers. A furious chase ensues. (All along I’d been thinking of HW as looking and acting like the Orson Welles character from A Touch of Evil, and this sewer chase puts me in the mind of The Third Man.)
As the story built to a climax, we felt it was time to advance to the final play-mat. There we found the final piece of the game, Part 4: The Fate of Your Host.
At the end of each Wrench (again, think act) the players take the highest card that’s been used during the various role-playing scenes for that Wrench and put it onto a Destiny Card spot on the last play-mat. (With all three Wrenches played, we’d filled in all of the Destiny Card spots.)
The Fate of Our Host
We looked at the mix of card suits of the Destiny Cards to determine the final fate of our host. In our case we ended up with a Diamond, a Spade, and a Club. According to the play-mat, this brought us to the outcome: "He sacrifices happiness for legacy. How is he remembered in a generation?"
After less than a minute of conversation, and Leslie’s continued inspired play, we concluded like this…
HW slips and stumbles down to the end of a giant drain with a huge grate over it. He blinks in the daylight as he sees one of his own warehouses. He feels a surge of hope as he realizes that the docks, and a possible escape, are only a few hundred feet away. He tugs at a bar which starts to bend when he hears sloshing footsteps behind him.
He turns to see Gleason in the half-light of the tunnel, gun drawn. They confront each other silently for a few moments, and HW pulls a gun. As Gleason lines up his shot, HW puts his gun to his own temple and pulls the trigger. Gleason screams “coward!,” but it’s too late… the echoes of the gunshot are already dying in the tunnel.
And what of HW’s Legacy…?
Gleason’s dream of leveraging HW’s arrest into a huge show trial evaporates in an instant. In fact, rumors dog Gleason for the rest of his career that he simply assassinated HW down in the sewers. Gleason never rises to a position of prominence in the Oakland Police Department.
Rhoby’s “gotcha” story is swept aside by the news of HW’s death. Initially the papers crucify HW’s character, but this is largely swept aside when his will is read. Manchester leaves the great bulk of his fortune to an endowment to create a series of libraries and parks in the greater Oakland area. The small but respectable remainder of the fortune is left in trust for little HW, who can only inherit when he turns 25.
The cleansing process of history whitewashes HW’s reputation (as it has done with so many of California’s magnates). Decades later a statue of HW is commissioned by his grandson and put in Jack London square.
If HW’s personality is recalled at all by later generations, he’s remembered vaguely, but fondly, as a generous scamp.
*Ansel Adams actually did grow up in the San Francisco area, a fact I must have somehow retained from some local history I read last year. He was actually injured in an aftershock of the 1906 quake. In reality he would have been a little young to participate in the events of our narrative, but it was awfully fun to pretend.
Rolling the Credits
My Indie Games Night crew has been at it once a fortnight for about 6 months. I can say this was hands down the best experience we’ve had. That’s somewhat thanks to the fact that we are getting better at playing these sorts of games, but I don’t want to take anything away from the simple yet really evocative game Nathan has here.
If you’d like to give it a try it is one of the many wonderful Free RPGs floating around out there. Here’s a direct download: link.
I encourage anyone who enjoys this or any of Nathan's other games to join his Patreon. There's a level for just about any budget, and Nathan's up to a lot of interesting things. He's even developed a design podcast with Will Hindmarch.
So, yes: play the game, and check out Nathan's various doings.