A Traveler, Alone

The image of the lone adventurer, exiled from their home society, means a lot to us in American culture, with our adoration of the Exceptional Individual. But roleplaying games aren’t, in general, designed for it, and thanks to Tolkien (and our general love of social behavior), we often play in ensemble casts, anyway.

In Shock: and The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, I’ve tried to give us a couple other options. In Shock: your Protagonists often don’t know each other at all; the effect you have on each other is through the medium of your shared world as it changes, where each of you is a perspective on the changes that are occurring around you — and the impetus of that change. In The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, you often play with one other person. One of you portrays a lone Companion while the other Knows the Will of the Names of the World. That gives us room for single character stories (though, oddly, it’s harder to do stories about two protagonists like Gentlemen of the Road.) But it still doesn’t change the social dynamic.

And, of course, we use our imaginations in solitary form with mechanical guidance all the time. That’s reading.

There are a lot of reasons to want to play a game by yourself. We see that in video game design all the time. Skyrim feels like it might be a fun world to play in together, but it’s perennially and firmly designed to be single-player. Kerbal Space Program is a game where all multiplayer options are outside of the game itself. And the most popular genres of game — the Candy Crushes and FarmVilles — are played by yourself on the subway or over a cup of coffee. And, of course, Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books are designed to play alone, where social activity is limited to sharing your personal experiences with your friends (or the occasional play-by consensus). These are games designed to unwind, or to give you opportunities to self-direct intrinsically enjoyable activities.

I liken these games to other solitary activities. I love sitting by myself and drawing. I love building electronic noiz machines. I love sitting and making sculpture (I’ll get back to it!). These are all really personal, even if I wind up showing off most of the products eventually.

But a lot of stuff goes in my notebook that I never show anyone. While some of it just isn’t worth recalling, the rest is just for my own benefit. I think this feeling — I’m doing this for me — is worth pursuing as an RPG.

I’ve been thinking for a good while about designing an RPG that’s fun to play all alone. It makes the most sense, for the time being, that it take place in the World of Names. I want it to feel like a Conan short story, about a person who’s alone — and can be alone — in a world bigger than humans.

Space is definitely bigger than humans, sure. As I hear it told, space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. But it’s fantastically improbable that a human could survive alone in the big dark. Even in the weeks between asteroids, a human would still have to choose to stop reading Twitter. And we know they won’t. So, as much as I love the Mass Drivers setting I wrote for the indefinitely-delayed Fate Space Toolkit, this isn’t the place to work with it. I want the kind of loneliness that comes from the assumption that there is no human who knows you’re here, whether you want that or not; loneliness that comes from rich and intention-filled wilderness, not the vast, uncaring void of space.

A wilderness of deserts and rivers, forests and mountains. Where other humans are a valuable asset and a cunning threat all at once — but where there are monsters outside of the predictable realm of civilization, or even society.

I’d bet that it would be fun to draw out your maps, your possessions, your own face, and those of your lovers and friends. I don’t think it’s just fun because it’s fun to draw maps and weapons. I think it’s fun because, once you’ve drawn it, it’s real.

I’m hoping to come back to this project with some frequency, ideally generating some µShock:s (which is where this idea started). If I’ve had a chance to playtest it before The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze is done, I’ll include it in the book, at least in some form. If not, expect it as a separate little book — maybe even a series, similar to the way Vincent Baker does Murderous Ghosts. Or maaaaybe an app, as in the case of Choice of Games.

So here is the preliminary specification:

  • Single player
  • Easily portable — no fistfuls of dice
  • Replayable
  • Deeply personal — the game cares about what scares you, what’s sexually attractive to you, what feels like justice, what’s surprising, what makes a good joke.
  • Should feel like a short story, playable in an hour or so.
  • Persistent fiction — I want to be surprised and delighted when a character shows up again.
  • At the same time, I want to consider continuity to be a lightly-held value, particularly as regards elements outside a given short story, like cosmology or inventory.
  • Minimal startup — if my character is complete, or I’m just not where they’re at right now, I can start another one.

I foresee challenges in each of these.

“No fistfuls of dice” sounds pretty easy, but I use randomness in ways that are productively creative in my other games. Do I have to have this be a phone app? Do I have randomness related to what other people around me are saying? Because “A deck of cards” is still an awkward object unless it’s somehow completely physically integrated into the rest of the game. So should it be a deck of cards, perhaps including a notebook that comes in the tuck box?

I want it to be personally affecting, so there are questions like, “They say something that’s extremely sexy to you. What do they say?” You don’t want to lie to the rules — you want to hear the character say it. And then it has to ask you questions about what they said. How do I design those questions in ways that make applicable answers? “If they express their attraction to you, turn to page 69. If they express power over you, turn to page 10. If they express submission to your might, turn to page 96.” I dunno. There’s something there, but I foresee a mind-boggling array of combinatorial explosions.

Persistent fiction can become unwieldy, which is why I don’t want you to have to care too much about continuity. Just like in The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, it’s a delicious spice, but not the meat of play. Finding that edge can be a challenge.

Minimal startup is pretty easy. I’ve got that down. Character generation should be fun, but extremely brief. Everything that you don’t need to immediately know, you should come up with as it comes up. I suspect it will be something like, “If you talk with them to discover their intentions, fill in two boxes on your Offering chart. If it’s more than 4, do xyz.” That way, you can assume that you’re doing what you’re best at, rather than trying to lay in materiel beforehand.

Looking forward to sketching these out for you! I’m working on this stuff, btw, because the xenoglyph Patreon has exceeded $340, which means I’m doing RPG experiments again. Backers already have the first three μShock:s, and they’ll get this one when it’s done, as well as all the other experiments that are reaching toward Shock:2. Back me up so I can keep affording to make these things!

Modular systems are a function of industrial society. But do people of The Fifth World still know how to agree to standards? With their acute interest in efficiency, I think they might have carried that lesson forward!

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