(Shattered Mirrors 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.
To check out the last storygame I produced, head over to gamesfromthewildwood.itch.io/endlesssea. To read the history of its design, check out the 'across the endless sea' tag on this blog).
So, I've got an idea for a game, and some vague ideas about narrative archetypes. What comes next?
I'm going to do something slightly different with today's post, and just share the personal notes I transcribed yesterday from a bunch of voicemails I left myself while walking to work and while on the bus (otherwise-"dead" time that's excellent for being creative).
These notes aren't polished, and they aren't mechanics yet, but in them the basic shape of this game is starting to emerge.
I hope that seeing what things looks like now, and then later seeing what this is solidified into, will be at least entertaining and maybe even interesting or educational. So, without further ado, here's the current state-of-thought regarding how this game will work:
We have four characters who all have clearly-defined domains of things within the story that belong to them (ref. Polaris roles). These also all have within them choices that structure what the story is about – the Absence choses the Quest, the Authority creates their Agents, etc. These characters are:
You are a child who has known loss in your family and watched it destroy those you loved, even the survivors. Given time, it may destroy you too. Your family is broken now. Ruined. You want only one thing in all the world: to have your family back as they were: loving, and together, and here. You will do anything to make that happen.
You frame your own actions, and the memories you have of your family. These may be scenes that truly happened, or imagined reunions to give you strength to go on. You also make the initial aesthetic decisions of the game: what kind of real world is this, what kind of Otherworld?
The Departed (a Parent, a Sibling, a Friend):
You are the absence that makes this family broken. You are distant, you are missing, you are long-dead. Whatever the reason, you are gone. It is the wounds of your loss the Child must heal, your return their goal. You are their quest. You too want to reunite, of course, but for whatever reason (choose 1 - including "you are dead") you can’t.
You frame the object for which the Child is searching, the quest that drives them through the Otherworld. You frame the obstacles that they must confront, too. This may be literal, as in Kubo and the Two Strings (The Armour of Three Parts), or it may be more figurative (the quest for Saoirse’s heritage in Song of the Sea).
The Ghost (a Parent, a Sibling, a Caregiver):
You are the emotional anchor of this story, your healing the drive behind the Child’s quest. To have you back, as you were, is the burning desire that drives them through perilous wonder and beautiful danger. You want do right by them, to be better. But you are burdened, and so weary, and without help you can’t.
You frame the beauty of the Otherworld: the magic of love and compassion and childhood wonder that the Child can draw upon, and the friends who will help them along the way. This help may be direct (the transformation of Kubo’s mother into Monkey and her gift of magic, in Kubo and the Two Strings) or from more diverse sources (the magic of the Selkie Song, the Great Seanachai).
The Authority (a Grandparent, a Family Friend):
You are the force of benevolent well-meaning tyranny that stands in the Child’s way, both in the real world and the Otherworld. You want them removed from the Ghost and in your care, for both of their own good of course.
You frame the Servants of Darkness, the creatures of the Otherworld that try to stand in the Child’s way (in Song of the Sea, the owl-familiars of Macha; in Kubo and the Two Strings, the two Star-Aunts). You frame the darkness and hopelessness that creeps into their heart, and seek to keep them from their destination.
The Child definitely has something that resembles the decision of Our Destiny that Andrew wrote into Girl by Moonlight. They make choices at the start of the game that shapes what the win-state of this story looks like.
They also start with an ally/companion – not physically powerful, but offering emotional support and guidance. This is Cu from Song of the Sea; this is paper Hanzo in Kubo & the Two Strings.
How does play actually work?
The First Act is very very structured. There are mandatory scenes framed by each character. It opens with the Child, it closes with the Authority and the intrusion of supernatural badness. Pre-defined pre-ordered scenes, prompts on the character sheets for choices what they’re about.
This is where we see the despair of the one left behind and how the Child is affected ,this is where we see that the Absence is a hole in the life of the family, this is where we meet the Authority and see this tyrannical controlling force that insists it knows best for the child (benevolent, well-meaning).
Then we enter the game proper, we’re now in the Otherworld – this means a different structure.
In any given scene the Protagonist always lays parameters (they chose position/effect, to borrow a Blades metaphor). They control what the scene is about – what are the stakes. They don’t get to frame what the scene is.
Whichever character has authority over what the scene’s about frames the scene.
This is a four player game, therefore it must have four distinct mechanical roles that may or may not match up with / be linked to narrative roles. Like Polaris, each player needs something to do.
Here is what they are:
- The Protagonist – they frame expectations, they make most decisions
- The Antagonist – they frame the scene, they set actual stakes? Maybe a negotiation process?
- The Guide – helps the Protagonist through
- The Judge – representative of the rules & the game structure
Instead of the Judge role and the Antagonist resting in the hands of the same player, they are deliberately separated out.
Lean into Ash’s observation about Across the Endless Sea and choices & lists. All the Judge can do is distribute choices from lists, but that’s the greatest authority of all. As the scene goes back and forth, based on what is common-sense and what seems fair (and maybe a tonal/genre guiding tool in terms of how severe this story should be and how often success should happen / with which costs) they assign consequence/victory for other players to choose from.
Can you resist these consequences, like in Blades? Maybe. Is it a limited resource? Yes.
As in Endless Sea, the lists are distinct between playbooks They are unique. Probably the Child has a list of Things Won and Things Lost, and then the others have lists of moves they can make / things they can inflict. Choices from these lists are incorporated into fiction as the scene goes on, rather than at the end of the scene (as mostly happens in Endless Sea).
Where there is conflict, the Judge resolves the outcome: usually either “you can have this but it costs you” or “you can’t have this but you gain something”. These choices are assigned, they immediately feed back into the narrative, play rolls on.
I imagine probably that a scene will run for 20-30 minutes. Assuming a 3-hour run time we’ll only really get 4 set-piece scenes but that sounds about right to the genre.
Some kind of mechanical structure that we shift into for the Big Finale Scene where everything is put right (or if this is the tragic version, where things are ambiguous - think the closing of Pan's Labyrinth).
So, there's what I've currently got!
At this point I'm expecting that the manifestation of this requires 8 playbooks: 4 narrative ones for the Child, Ghost, Departed, & Authority; 3 mechanical ones for the Protagonist, Antagonist, & Judge; and then one mixed narrative-mechanical playbook for the Guide.
The Child & the Protagonist playbooks always go together, but otherwise the roles of Antagonist, Judge, & Guide circulate between the other players depending on which intention/stakes the Child declares for a given scene.
It's possible though, looking back over my notes above on narrative roles, that the Guide & the Ghost always go together, and the Guide is explicitly framed as a representation of the relationship-that-was before the Ghost fell into despair.
At that point we're now just circulating antagonism between the Departed's Quest, by which the Child can get them back, and the Authority's attempt at establishing control.
Hm. I kind of like that better?
And I think it's more in keeping, actually, with the key texts I'm drawing from.
Anyway, that's enough for now. Next time I should have an actual write-up of some game procedures, samples of the text from the mechanical playbooks to describe how the game will actually run. If you've got any questions about the notes above (clarifying my meaning is always a helpful exercise) or any thoughts/suggestions on what I'm currently thinking, please leave them below as a comment and be part of this design process.
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