Before you read further, please stop and take a few minutes to watch this video.
The song and the amazing stage production that accompany it are lots of fun on their own, of course. But did you know that you can also share the fun with your friends by playing the Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf micro-RPG? It’s a super simple game with minimal prep that fills an hour or two and requires no special supplies beyond six-sided dice and an appreciation for horror tropes.
I’ve known about it for a long time, but tonight was my first chance to ever play the dang thing. I just found a group that I hope to game with once a week or so, but the guy who’s going to be DMing had work-related stuff so I brought some alternatives, and this was one of them. I was tired and didn’t super want to be the Shia Master, but was slotted into the role by group fiat (since I was the one who’d brought the game), and it actually went very well. We all had fun and I’m satisfied with the overall arc of the story.
The scene: a long-abandoned amusement park, run down and overgrown. The metal is rusting, overgrowth chokes the pathways, animals nest in the kiosks, and all the utilities were shut off years ago. “C,” a landscaper with a machete, and “B,” a maintenance worker lugging a first-aid kid (for some reason that surely has nothing to do with metagame knowledge) are scouting it out in advance of a project to clean up and refurbish the place. As night begins to fall they run into “H,” a strange man lugging a five-pound bag of table salt.
C has been using her machete to clear away brush, and now she spots a human hand poking out of a patch of vines. The group approaches, pulls the foliage aside, and discovers – Shia LaBeouf, sleeping. Except now he’s awake, and remains perfectly motionless except for his eyes, which move from one person to another. They cautiously approach, Shia leaps out of the foliage to attack, and the chase is on!
The story we created ended up being a lot of fun and very satisfying. The trio’s attempt to escape led them through a disintegrating mirror funhouse, a trapped maintenance tunnel, an abandoned cotton-candy kiosk, along the top of a rickety roller-coaster track, and finally through a gap in the fence at the far side of the amusement park from the entrance they’d come in by. At one point a poor roll led to the machete being lost to a particularly vicious bite. Over the course of their adventures, the group developed a dynamic with C facing Shia head-on while B fled at the first sign of danger and H managed to hurt himself in a series of unlucky pratfalls and high jinks.
Despite Shia’s preternatural toughness they managed to whittle him down to a battered and bloody state, but in the end an equally-wounded C and H barely managed to escape. Poetically, they were saved by B overcoming his self-preservation impulse and making a desperate last stand. His attempted ambush failed, but the time and attention that Shia spent Actually Cannibalizing his body was enough for the others to put the park well behind them and return to the safety of society.
This was the first time I’d ever actually played the game, so I was a bit nervous about how well I’d be able to pull off running it, but things turned out really well! As you’d expect of a rules-lite system, getting a good play session out of ACSLB relied heavily on a positive confluence of own intuition plus lots of understanding and buy-in from the players, so I wouldn’t recommend it for a group that can’t get on the same wavelength to construct a fun horror story or countenance the possibility that their character may get devoured by a supernatural madman.
The part that struck me the most was how tricky the ending was. I got lucky in that both the players and their adversary were all getting low on health at the same time, which made it natural to place them at the fence after escaping the roller-coaster track and allow the results to be decided by one final, do-or-die confrontation. A vindictive Shia Master could easily keep on finding excuses to call for checks until all the PCs were dead, while permissive SMing in the face of aggressive play could lead to a quick and tidy but unsatisfying player “win.” And how well the balancing act plays depends on part on everyone present accepting a relatively consistent set of tropes.
I had a good time with ACSLB, and I’d be willing to run or play in another session some time. (For some reason, as of this writing, the idea of Shia LaBeouf IN SPAAAAAACE seems extra appealing.) It seems like most of the fun comes from creative play and the unexpected directions the story can take thanks to the dice, which nicely balances the stress of having to make everything up on the fly.
Aside from the above, I have a few tips for prospective Shia Masters:
- Mix things up.
Use direct assaults, ambushes, and traps; closed and open environments, and so on as Shia and the players each adjust to the other side’s resources and tactics. Actual Cannibal Shia may be a mute, unemotional force of nature, but that doesn’t mean he’s an idiot who will rush headlong into a party’s prepared defenses. In our session, Shia’s approach began with hand-to-hand combat, then transitioned into traps and opportunistic attacks as his wounds made him more cautious.
- Use plenty of flavor text
Anything that pops into your head will serve two functions: first, it paints the scene more vividly for the players and helps them stay invested in the game. Second, it sets up building blocks for both you and the players to riff off of later. You can’t make good use of props on an empty stage. In our session, when the party paused to ponder a random rotten hamburger placed the center of a room in the mirror maze, I decided that it was actually a trap placed by Shia for that very purpose and had him drop in on them from the ceiling.
- Give suggestive choices and then build on them
As the “quantum ogre” discussion demonstrates, it can feel bad for the players to realize that their choices are meaningless and the ensuing encounters will be the same no matter what they do. That said, it’s hard to give the players truly differentiated options when you’re inventing every scene on the fly. I suspect that the next best thing is giving them suggestive choices: when you present them with the opportunity to make a choice (generally to keep the action moving after a lull), take the above tip and just throw in a handful of details. These details may be random in a sense, but building on them later is what allows the choice to have real consequences instead of just being a coin toss between A and B.
In the our session, in the maintenance tunnels I gave my player a T-intersection with a choice between “dark” and “wet.” It was my building on their choice of “wet” that led them to an encounter with a tripwire trap concealed in a flooded section of the corridor.
- Say “Yes, but”
This comes directly from the “Yes, and” rule of improv. Even when their requests or attempted actions seem unreasonable to you, it will probably frustrate the players if you respond to attempted courses of action with a flat refusal. That said, your job is to provide opposition and obstacles, so permitting anything the players can think of doesn’t seem appropriate either. The solution is to add a cost or call for a roll – whether this is a normal roll staking blood tokens, or a special roll as discussed below. In our session, after the loss of the machete, the players made use of several improvised weapons, and in each case I asked them to let the dice decide the results of a search or to go through a process that imposed some cost in terms of time or materials, like sacrificing the remaining bandages from their medical kit to wrap a hand-grip around a length of splintered wood to make a club.
- Invent other mechanics as necessary
The only real “mechanic” for resolving unknowns in ACSLB is the roll which stakes blood tokens, but there are situations where this feels inappropriate – e.g. if a character looks around to see if there are any trees nearby. You may want to call for a normal roll and simply not penalize failure, or assign a probability and roll against it, or almost anything else that fits your group’s tastes. The important thing is to be consistent in using that ad hoc mechanic to resolve similar issues, at least for the remainder of the session. In our session, I assigned this kind of question a 50/50 chance and rolled the die after having the player call high/low or evens/odds, and it worked well enough.
Alright; this post has probably gone on long enough, so I’ll leave things there. I hope that my impressions are useful to some other potential players. Happy hunting!