(Across the Endless Sea is a storygame I’m writing, blogging the process here to entertain and hopefully get some advice/feedback. For the introductory post that lays out the design goals of the project, look here).
So, what does Across the Endless Sea look like as an actual game? This is the first and most important question that needs answering.
Every other mechanic and piece of writing must flow from this basic place: What is the structure of the game, and what is the resolution mechanic?
Let’s begin with structure.
Some years ago, I read Avery Alder’s Dream Askew: a GMless hack of Apocalypse World that presumes a slower-motion apocalypse and the formation of alternative and queered societal models to cope with this advancing frontier of weirdness and apocalyptica.
I haven’t yet got a chance to play it, but one thing stuck with me: players with multiple Playbooks to run.
In Dream Askew, every player is running two Playbooks at once: a character (slightly different from the normal AW list, but essentially similar) and a part of the world’s apocalyptic state.
The fictional tapestry controlled by the GM in Apocalypse World is carved up and parceled out among these “GM Playbooks” that give narrative authority over the aspect they describe: the world’s Psychic Maelstrom; a Warlord leading other survivors, violent and opportunistic; Grotesques and their cultists and believers.
Every player controls an aspect of the world and generates antagonism that originates from that thing. Every player controls a character who can confront the aspects of the world’s badness, except for one.
(Sidenote: The idea of making thematic statements by pre-determining these links is an interesting one. Whoever plays the Gunlugger must also play the Maelstrom; guns have no power over the bleeding psychic hole at the heart of the world. Whoever plays the Brainer must also play the Warlord; psychic fuckery cannot stop a soldiers well-led and armed with bullets. But this is a thought for another time…).
So: in Across the Endless Sea each player controls an Aspect of the People whose journey we tell the story of and a Threat of the Endless Sea upon which they travel.
This idea has been part of the game since very early on. One of the earliest things I wrote was:
- One set of them [Playbooks] represent the Aspects of the People (that’s what they call themselves). You might be the Heart of the People, the Hands of the People, the Eyes of the People, the Memory of the People, etc.. Your sheet offers choices that define some of the cultural practices and values of the People, and your Moves provide ways to interrogate the fiction regarding things that the Endless Sea presents and ways to overcome them.
- One set of them [Playbooks] represent the Threats of the Endless Sea. You might be the Weather of the Endless Sea, the Tides of the Endless Sea, the Islands of the Endless Sea, the Dwellers in/on the Endless Sea. Your sheet offers choices that define the environmental aesthetic of the game and the world the People move through. Your moves provide ways to flesh out and elaborate the randomly-generated prompts for what the Endless Sea presents, and establish challenges for the People to overcome.
As mentioned in the text above, inherent also in the design of the game has been the idea that the encounter that the People have on the Endless Sea are drawn at random from a deck of prompts.
There is a Twitter account that I dearly love called @str_voyage, a bot that generates an “endless nautical story” using random procedural generation.
The content it produces doesn’t always make sense, but more often than not is evocative and provokes the imagination. If a simple bot can produce coherent consistent story using procedural generation, I’ve always wondered, what could a table of creative and cooperating players do with a similarly-limited set of basic building blocks as their source material.
All that being said, then, here is the basic structure of the game:
- There are playbooks for the People and for the Endless Sea. Each player runs one of each.
- The structure of the game involves a series of encounters, prompts for which are drawn from a deck.
- One player, controlling a suitable Threat, fleshes out the encounter.
- One player, controlling a suitable Aspect, leads the People in confronting the encounter.
This is basically all there needs to be.
I have an idea that there’ll be some special mechanics for the end-game, when the People arrive wherever they’ve been going, but the overwhelming majority of the game’s rules and play are going to rest on having these encounters.
What do these encounters look like, mechanics-wise? Here’s the current draft:
- Time passes, triggering an encounter
- An encounter card is drawn
- The group determines which Threat the encounter belongs to
- The Threat player should get to answer some questions (define some things) and ask some leading questions (force others to define some things)
- The group determines which Aspect player will meet the encounter
- The meeting of it should be a group effort; the lead Aspect player directs the confrontation, but choices/moves of the others may be involved
- Mechanics happen – roll dice? draw runes? look at Blades & Sundered Land for inspiration –that resolve how well/badly things go.
- Possibly modified by whether the Aspect was a good choice to meet the Threat in question?
- Consequences occur as a result of the encounter; something is lost, something is gained, something is learned
- Are these the choices made by other players? Maybe?
Recently I’ve been watching Adam Koebel play Vincent Baker’s forum game A Sundered Land on his Twitch channel (slightly adapted), and a lot of the way this resolution mechanic is shaping up is inspired by that.
I’m loving the way A Sundered Land uses leading questions as a central mechanic: it’s entirely functional, it emphasizes those old AW ideas of “make the world seem real” and “always say what honesty demands”, and it leads towards fiction that is both compelling and non-generic/unique.
Interestingly, it’s the dice mechanic for combat in A Sundered Land that I find least interesting.
The most evocative confrontations in the several games Adam played were when he and Twitch-chat went slightly off-script and forgot about the combat dice.
So maybe the resolution mechanic for Across the Endless Sea should involve no dice or randomization at all.
Hm. A thought to return to in a future post, I think.