Review: ‘Breaking the Ice’

breaking the ice

Breaking the Ice by Emily Care Boss is a two-player game that tells the story of a relationship through its rocky start into a bright future. I was initially dubious about this game, as I felt that it would inevitably be awkward and weird to play, provoking lots of trashy novel descriptions and stilted, melodramatic dialogue, but I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s fresh, fun and opens a dialogue right from the start about comfort levels.

It’s also designed to treat the whole thing as a narrative game because, frankly, why can’t we play through a relationship as much as a combat or an investigation? It’s something I struggled with for years (and I still have difficulty with PC/PC relationships as opposed to PC/NPC) but it is an area of roleplay that I’m curious about.

The opening of every game is a discussion about genre, immediately situating the play in a narrative frame (romantic comedy is the default, but there is guidance on screwball comedy, darker dramas and other settings). Then the discussion moves on to content ratings – you can choose to have it be a game devoid of explicit sexual overtones right through to more explicit and graphic content. There is never any sense of what people ‘should’ find acceptable – compared to games like Bacchanal and Monsterhearts, which deliberately trade in more graphic content, Breaking the Ice can be as PG-rated and innocent as you like without shame or judgement.

The character creation is great, starting by identifying differences (e.g. gender, sexuality, social class, culture) between the players and then applying those to the characters, but swapped. So, if one person playing is male and one female, the difference is gender and the male player will play a female character, and vice versa. You can have multiple differences here, too, swapping both gender and culture, or just leave it at one. I think this has a valuable function for distancing within the game so players can see characters rather than ciphers for their own feelings.

Character creation after that is very much word association and discussion, using your characters’ favourite colours and the thoughts they provoke for inspiration. It’s very freeform but still potentially provides a range of characters, especially as the game requires things like conflicts to complicate the relationship (e.g. still hung up on an ex, afraid of commitment, broken leg). It feels like it would be quite an organic process.

The players then tell the stories of three dates, each with their own complications and conflicts, with dice awarded for narration and collaboration that are then rolled to increase the Attraction between the characters or reveal areas of Compatibility that can be built on later. But does the attraction last between the dates, and how compatible are the characters really? The aim, as far as their is an aim, of the game is to end up with a lot of areas of Compatibility and a high level of Attraction, but the idea is to tell the story of a relationship, which, let’s face it, has been at the heart of most of humanity’s storytelling.

The default in this is definitely a couple, and while the game has suggestions for playing with more than two players, it doesn’t go into the question of relationships that involve more than two people or non-monogamy, though of course, that could be encountered as some of the complications that arise (e.g. broaching the subject, mishaps in communication, hilarious misunderstandings). It’s a little disappointing that the possibility of relationships outside the ‘monogamous couple’ model isn’t even acknowledged, but the game is also deliberately trying to create an experience for two people, so I can see why they focused on that. There are also brief suggestions for running in other settings and genres (e.g. hardboiled detective fiction, fantasy, sci-fi) and some guidelines on how to approach darker subject matter.

I’m not sure I’ve entirely got my head around how the date mechanics works. They seem fun (and somewhat similar to Annalise, if simpler) and are probably easier to cope with in play.

I think this would be a very easy game to play with a partner, but I’d also be curious about the experience of playing it with someone who you weren’t romantically involved with – the game is deliberately set up so any combination of people can play and the example used involves players who have just met that evening and are ‘breaking the ice’ in real life too. I think as long as everyone sets out their boundaries clearly first (Lines and Veils make a reappearance), and the whole thing is treated as a game/storytelling exercise and not taken too seriously, a lot of the potential for bleed can be avoided.

Over time, RPGs seem to be growing up in how they treat relationships and intimacy – (mostly) gone are the days of awkward giggling while a D&D character sleeps with a gratuitous and disposable prostitute in a tavern, and we’re also moving on from the idea that this stuff can’t come into games at all. While these things have always been present in the hands of sensible GMs, there are just as many examples of intimacy handled poorly (I’m not even going to get into that 3rd party supplement for D&D). I had, and still have, an awful lot of hang-ups about this kind of content, but over time, as I play with groups I’m comfortable with, I’m working through it. I’m really glad Breaking the Ice exists because I think games like this are a great way of understanding how RPGs present relationships these days – acknowledged as important story elements, given mechanics, and narrated based on mutual trust and boundaries. You have some games such as Apocalypse World and Bacchanal that deliberately treat intimacy as trashy and transgressive, a challenge to the idea that ‘that stuff’ should only happen behind closed doors, Breaking the Ice is a gentler introduction which reflects not just sex but also the emotional beats of a relationship, and it does it well.

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