In case you’re blessedly naive to the internet, there’s a bit of a social media panic underway. Twitter is crumbling under Elon Musk’s ownership and may collapse into relative devastation any day. The resulting mass exodus to other sites, namely the self-hosted platform Mastodon, has caused both server instability and a sizable amount of culture clash.
Your online friends are almost certainly caught somewhere between religious reverie and constant bafflement, but you don’t have to crawl into the pit with them for a small taste of that emotional cocktail. Instead, one tabletop RPG designer has managed to distil the last few weeks into a single gaming session via two one-page RPGs that cleverly send up the fall and dubious rise of 2022’s social media du jour.
Game designer Oliver Darkshire unceremoniously dropped I Don’t Want a Mastodon on November 11th, saying the game’s premise of being given a massive pet that you did not want and that actively makes your life worse was “inspired by real events”. Any similarity to the alternative social media site, which has seen an influx of users as Twitter’s owner enacts sweeping changes including mass layoffs and sudden cutting of thousands of contract workers, is left without comment.
Players use a single six-sided die to determine what Mastodon Events demand their attention across a week of time attempting to rein in the unruly prehistoric proboscidean (did you know that “pachyderm” is scientifically debunked?) When these occur and how they affect the player are decided by a few simple tables. The Mastodon might “decentralise all over the carpet” or lock you out of playing with it until you muster a password not within your memory. It might also simply decide to sit on you.
All of these actions tick boxes along three stat tracks - Confusion, Damages, and Thinking - and reaching the end of any one track triggers one of the game’s end states. They are all humiliating, destructive and sometimes fatal. It mirrors the frustration of being forced to reckon with the architecture of some new ring of internet hell where the rules of your former life seem to no longer apply. In fact, all the player can do is roll a die, read the result, and watch the bar towards finality slowly tick up. But it’s less about the destination and more the hair-pulling annoyance encountered along the way.
Darkshire’s second title, Last Days of Rome, dropped on November 18th, is a much more direct response to Musk’s performance at Twitter’s helm. It is almost functionally identical to I Don’t Want a Mastodon, aside from a snippet about playing with other people - your stats are now Flames, Desolation and Relocation, and each roll of the die decides how the emperor deepens the general misery of his people. It is, as you might expect, intentionally light on subtext.
Both one-page RPGs are not exactly fun to play, though the writing is witty and the rules easy enough for anyone to pick up within minutes. That’s intentional - the last couple of weeks has not been jolly for anyone affected by the crawling dismantling of online communication (at least, in one specific corner of the internet). The player is powerless, reading someone else - mastodon or emperor - act upon their lives in ways that oscillate between discomfort and destruction. Stuff happens to them, or to other people, they read about it, and feel worse as a result. As a simulator for being on Twitter, it’s pretty spot on.
I love games for their ability to mechanise a human experience, a metaphorical translation through rules as an attempt to recreate those feelings in someone else. Darkshire’s recent pair serve as excellent examples and seem to be par for the designer’s past work, as well. I recommend you take a moment to stop doomscrolling or decyphering what the hell federation means to enjoy some gallows humour before the blade finally drops on the bird site.