A Divorce of Druids and the Reviewing of their Remove, Part 4: Winter

This post concludes my four-part review of A Divorce of Druids and the Division of Their Domain. For context, see the preceding three parts: Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Spoilers await.


A Divorce of Druids and the Division of Their Domain, Issue 4: Winter
Game design, writing, and graphic design by Jason Kotzur
Illustrations by Kier Spilsbury
Published by Long Tail Games
All images used with permission

If you’ve read my previous essays on the other Divorce of Druids seasons—which you should have since the links are literally right there—then you know what this game is all about. As in previous seasons, Winter incorporates new dynamics through traits, laws, desires, and other elements that will affect player precedence, apportioning and populating the land, and scoring points. Again, Kotzur introduces novel tweaks without fundamentally altering the core gameplay, keeping it familiar but still fresh for players.

This review won’t deal with most of those specifics in any significant capacity. It’s not even really a review; it’s an interpretation and explication. I’m going to focus on how Winter’s imagery and structure recall and interact with preceding issues at a larger scale: as a reflection on the entire experience of the game.

Seasons & Stories

Literary critic Northrop Frye organized the Western canon into a cycle of story structures that he aligned with the seasons. Spring is the season of comedy, characterized by affection and founding new societies; summer is the season of romance, which corresponds to the quest cycle of adventure, adversity, achievement, and return; autumn is the season of the archetypal tragedy and the hero’s fall; and winter is the season of irony, particularly as a satire of the diametrically opposed summer romance (for example, Don Quixote’s parody of chivalric romance and commentary on the absurdity of courtly values in a modernizing world).

A Divorce of Druids fits these archetypes surprisingly well. Frye’s larger delineations are not hard and fast, and A Divorce of Druids likewise doesn’t cleave strictly to the most distilled story structures.

Archetypal comedy centers on courtship and union. Spring maintains a strongly affectionate and optimistic tone characteristic of comedy (but which quickly recedes in subsequent seasons). Its goal, like all comedy, is the formation of a new society, but it breaks from comedy’s archetypal shape by creating that new society through separation instead of union—and there, A Divorce of Druids arguably plants the seed of irony that comes to full fruition in Winter.

“As agreed, you wait upon the hill.”

Winter returns to Spring’s opening scene: the hill overlooking the surrounding land. Summer saw the druids meet in a glade, and in Autumn, a cave. To conclude the divorce ritual, they now return to their starting place.

In Spring, the focal druid (referred to in the second person) was followed by a red fawn who ate the grass at their feet. Now, in winter, they’re followed by a stag who struggles to find even a mouthful of greenery. At maturity, the seasonal cycle and the individual conflict with one another; the deer has grown as the land’s bounty has dwindled.

In Spring, Autumn, and Winter, the focal druid is associated with a single, lone animal: the fawn, a wolf, and the stag. In Summer and Autumn, the focal druid’s beloved is associated with social groups of animals—birds and then rats—while in Spring, they’re heralded by a lone raven. In Summer, the focal druid isn’t associated with any animal at all, and in Winter, their beloved likewise appears alone without a companion. The consistency of these characterizations and the alternating, incidental lapses emphasize the focus on sociality and separation throughout the game’s four parts.

In each issue, the opening narrative devotes particular attention to each druid’s clothing and appearance. Across the issues, the focal druid’s clothing progresses from a bearskin, then nakedness (their own skin), then no mention of their attire, and then a patchwork of disparate bearskins. The sequence of unity to absence to aggregate symbolizes the dyad’s fragmentation but also the continued coherence in separation, the past’s direct influence on the future.

In Spring, Autumn, and Winter, the beloved wears a solid-colored robe: deep blue, red, and black. While the red is mentioned only in passing, the blue and black carry airs of mystique; the blue dye comes from a plant “you do not yet know” and the black is one so deep that the focal druid “did not know [it] was possible.” In Summer, though, the beloved’s previously plain robes are contrasted with garments patterned with foliage, flowers, and feathers.

This garment preserves the beloved’s wild physical appearance. In Spring, flowers and vines grow in their beard and hair; in Autumn, their hair is loose and free; and in Winter, the vines and flowers reappear, again wrapping back around to the start of the cycle just like the stag recalls the fawn for the focal druid.

But that wildness is consistently balanced with some form of neatness and orderliness. In Spring, they lean on an almost perfectly straight staff; in Summer, their hair is trimmed and neat; in Autumn, the beloved reverts to plain robes; and in Winter, their robes are explicitly described as “traditional” while their staff is now gnarled and winding, contrasting the clean uniformity of the original staff while more closely aligning with the plants adorning their hair.

In each issue, the beloved is depicted as arriving second at the scene of the meeting, and in most of the cases, they are associated with a certain trajectory. In the first case, they’re simply associated with the raven, which establishes a precedent of flight. In Summer, the birds return as a tree branch lowers the beloved into the glade. In Autumn, they are depicted floating above the ground; and in Winter, they climb the hill. The pattern is one of ascent (up the hill), descent (from the tree), flight, and then ascent again, which is itself an ironic progression; the descent is jovial and good natured, while the ascent is more laborious (they pull themselves up the hill with their staff instead of just leaning on it).

In Spring, the focal druid waits because they’ve arrived ahead of their beloved. In Summer, their beloved is running late by several days, and in Winter by an indeterminate amount of time. In both cases, the speaker characterizes the wait with heat and cold, respectively. Autumn makes no reference to time.

This lack signals a significant disjunction that occurs in Autumn. As I noted in the third part of this series, Autumn makes a sharp tonal break with the preceding issues, becoming much more cynical and antagonistic (the hero’s tragic fall from spring’s diametrically opposed affection and good intent). But the rupture runs much deeper than mere tone.

This is most visible in the final lines of each paragraph—a strategically placed series of repetitions that are easily overlooked since the reader is moving on to the next paragraph or to the game itself. In Spring, Summer, and Winter, the final sentences of the first three paragraphs are all direct repetitions:

  • “They always had a flair for drama.”
  • “They always had the ear of the plants.”
  • “They always had a knack for choosing.”

The fourth paragraph’s final sentence is the same in Spring and Summer: “They always go first.” In Winter, it’s repeated with a crucial variation: “You always let them go first.” The change implies that the focal druid has finally gained control of the situation by willfully relinquishing that control.

These lines reinforce the game’s central motifs and core action, and they suggest a coherent identity for the focal druid across seasons.

Autumn undoes this assumption. It repeats the initial terminal line about a flair for drama, creating expectations for the same pattern, but then introduces crucial differences:

  • “They always had a fondness for foul creatures.”
  • “They were always accommodating.”
  • “You go first.”

The apparent implication is that the perspective is reversed and the reader now sees things from the point of view of the druid who was, in previous issues, portrayed as the beloved. But the third issue’s beloved shares contiguous characteristics with the preceding issues’ beloved—wearing robes instead of skins, association with a group of animals, vertical motion.

Autumn’s perspectival shift is not a simple one. It suggests that, rather than the druids being characters with distinct identities (which the continuity between session’s outcomes and starting conditions establishes for the players), they’re narrative pretexts formed from shifting and interchanging characteristics (similar to the mechanical function of learning the laws of the land in the game). The apparent shift in perspective hides, and the details reveal, a more significant disjunction in Autumn, and one that aligns with the extreme change in tone.

Cataloguing all of the meaningful parallels and contrasts amongst the four issues’ introductions would require large and probably cumbersome table that would in no way capture the real experience of reading them. Just as no two players will ever play the same session the same way, there is no definitive or baseline interpretation for the introductory narratives’ complexity; it’s open to interpretive play.

Far from simply introducing each season, the narratives establish continuity between the issues and sessions, and they selectively introduce disjunction between them. They create a complex progression and interplay that can be described but not rationalized. The craft and creativity, like the gameplay itself, can only be truly appreciated by inhabiting them.

Outcomes

In all previous issues, neutral good druids have only one outcome, and Winter is no different. But in Spring, Summer, and Autumn, true neutral and neutral evil druids could achieve any of six different outcomes. Winter radically curtails this number, cutting it to two. It’s all or nothing in the cold season; the lands either achieve harmony within themselves and with each other, or the winner takes all.

The two outcomes reflect the dispositions of Spring and Autumn, respectively, and binary nature of A Divorce of Druid’s game-theory structure. The first is one of mutual cooperation, of “being fair and getting what you want.” The second is that of game theory’s flip side, of playing for maximum personal gain without concern for the other side’s losses.

“Your final name”

Winter brings Spring’s comedy arc to its conclusion. The divorce is now complete, and a new society is formed.

An entirely new game phase, The Final Farewell, uses all previous seasons’ results to determine what that new society looks like. It may be a new circle of druids, a disillusionment with nature and return to civilization (whether sedentary or itinerant), or even a society of one—but in each case, the beloved still makes a crucial appearance-in-absence that ties this new state to the preceding events.

The Farewell decides the course of the druids’ lives after completing the separation. It serves as a capstone, the denouement of the game’s long-running conflict, but it explicitly calls the player’s narration a “Prologue.” Just as each previous season’s conclusion is the basis for the successive one, so Winter’s conclusion emphasizes itself as not purely as a conclusion but as a turn of the cycle and the beginning of a new season in the characters’ lives.

“Say Farewell

Every season of A Divorce of Druids concludes with a contemplation phase. Winter serves, at scale, as that contemplation phase for A Divorce of Druids as a whole. The players “have completed the full cycle of rituals and are ready to move one” with their new lives.

In Spring, players bid one another “goodbye”; in Summer and Autumn, “we will meet again”; and Winter concludes with “farewell.” The middle two issues emphasize the cycle’s continuity and return, while the first and final ones emphasize the ending, with Winter intensifying the sentiment even as it directly recalls the conclusion of the initial session.

Spring and Summer conclude by telling the other player something you would miss about them if you never saw them again. In Autumn, you tell them something about them that has changed in the time you’ve known them. And Winter moves from reflection to introspection as each player contemplates a life path different from the one they are on now, again looking ahead rather than dwelling on the past as the series draws to a close.

“It is up to you”

The players are now left with a set of material keepsakes, one from each season, and they must decide what they’re going to do with them. They can decide at the game’s conclusion or they can set them aside to deal with later or not at all.

The keepsakes are material memories of the process of playing A Divorce of Druids, much like photographs or love letters that we keep in albums or boxes or locked drawers. Maybe we don’t keep them; maybe we destroy them, throw them out, or just forget about them and let them become lost.

Whatever we do with them, they serve as reminders and symbols of connections we’ve made, and the way we treat them is a metaphor for how we deal with our relationships, their endings, and our new beginnings.

The Great Chain of Druids

The circle of druids finally dissolves even as the circle of seasons wraps back around on itself. Winter leaves us with the final full-spread image of iconic druids linked hand in hand:

Similar images appear on each issue’s final page, featuring each issue’s iconic druids. In Winter, druids from all four seasons appear, emphasizing the continuity between the issues and sessions. The hands at each end suggest further extension into the past and the future or, perhaps, the continuity of the cycle and the closure of the circle—a final, ironic visual suggestion.

Winter’s cover supports the latter notion. Each issue features a dominant color with hints of each adjacent issue’s colors. Winter is dominated by blue, but its lefthand druid is characterized by overtones of red (Autumn’s dominant color), and the righthand druid’s robe is dominated by green (Spring’s).

With these opening and closing images, A Divorce of Druids reminds us one more time that linear experiences are merely isolated perceptions of larger cycles. Each session repeats the same process and motions, returning to the same starting point and reaching the same end conditions. And the game’s larger conceit—the progression of seasons—is an eternally turning wheel wherein the cold ironies of winter always yield to the renewal and rebirth of spring.


All four issues of A Divorce of Druids and the Division of Their Domain are available in digital and print formats from Long Tail Games via itch.io and Gum Road.

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

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