This rough game sketch follows some ideas laid down in the latest Fictoplasm podcast about Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.

The General Idea

First, influences, a bit of this and that:

  • Books: Pale Fire (Nabokov), The Land of Laughs (Carroll), Weaveworld (Barker)
  • Film and TV: Twin Peaks, Riverdale, It Follows
  • Comics: Planetary issue 9 (“Planet Fiction”) (Warren Ellis)
  • RPGs: Mage: The Ascension, Over The Edge, Unknown Armies, Changeling: The Lost

In summary, a lot like a contemporary game, a liminal fantasy, magical realism, a setting that looks like the real world but with weirdness.

Second, the pitch.

The characters are exiles from “Ruritania”, a.k.a. The Old Country. This is a place that (mostly) exists outside the game area.

Most of the time the characters have settled in a “Ruritanian colony” in The New Country. This colony isn’t really a real place, but it’s close enough to all the real places in the New Country that most non-Ruritanians, or “normal people” could not tell the difference. It fits right in with their world, they can easily travel to it, etc.

What do the PCs do in this place? Well, any kind of modern drama/investigative type of game. The world looks like our world, and the people inside it behave accordingly, and most of the time you follow the characters around and see how their lives link up.

But at some point, Ruritania intrudes on the real world. Ruritania is the exotic, the weird, the magical. It’s also subjective; Ruritania means different things to different characters. And it’s possible to hold a personal view of Ruritania and experience someone else’s version. Ruritania is a single place but viewed from many different perspectives.

The default setup is that assassins from Ruritania are stalking the characters. The game should play out episodically like a drama, soap opera, police procedural, etc. with a weekly (well, short) story arc. But the Ruritanian arc is long-term. As things get stranger, the assassins get closer to where the PCs are; and when they are close enough, they strike.

System Approach

The goal is to run a game like Twin Peaks with “real” people and their personal interests and drama. Most of the time things are perfectly mundane but at points the strangeness intrudes.

Dramasystem should work very well for setting up the web of relationships. Where Dramasystem fails for procedural bits, consider the procedural approach in Malandros.

Also consider the WaRP system, which works nicely for very light characters. WaRP is very neat looking with the Central Trait, Side Traits and Negative Trait.

Consider the involvement of NPCs in Dramatic and Procedural scenes. A lot of Dramasystem supposedly focuses inward; but a game like this needs external characters to come from outside and connect with the interior characters.

Use a sort of location tagging system. Rate this numerically:

  • 0 for “real world”
  • 1 for “almost real world”; the default state for a Ruritanian colony
  • 2-3 for “intrusion”, that is any strangeness, alternative reality
  • 5 is full-on Ruritania; the magical or weird reality that is stalking the characters.

Locations in the game world can have ratings that go up and down. These ratings represent difficulties for passing into certain areas. See the Boundaries bit, next.

During the game, each character will have a clock which goes up or down. As their rating increases they become more sensitive, more connected with the secret world (criminal underworld, psychic world, dream world, etc.). If this is handled using an Apocalypse World style of “hard moves” then above a certain threshold on the clock certain options are opened to the GM to take hard moves on behalf of the Ruritanian assassins, representing their progress towards the characters.

Additionally when the characters are “in Ruritania” (i.e. in the psychic landscape) they may have restricted actions depending on what permission they have to be there — this fits with e.g. a dream world where certain moves simply aren’t available owing to dream logic.

What is Ruritania?

“Ruritania” represents somewhere far away, magical, normally separate from reality; a higher world, a dream world, an idealised state, a place yearned for. It’s the Black and White Lodges in Twin Peaks, the higher universe of Yesod in the Book of the New Sun, the dream worlds of Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm St, and so on.

Ruritania in the game is an unattainable state — and it’s normally a place the characters are fleeing from, and from whence they are pursued with lethal intent.

But there are Ruritanian colonies for the exiles; decide whether these are created consciously or happen spontaneously. Maybe they are necessary for survival; the Ruritanians can sustain themselves for a short while in the real world as vampires by feeding off individual dreamers, but for long term health they need to be in a place of stability. Maybe Ruritanian exiles gathering together in one place is a risky strategy since it attracts attention, but they’re forced to get together to survive.

What happens when normal people who are touched by Ruritanian unreality leave? Are they haunted? Are they infected? Is Ruritania a transmissible condition?

Drawing Boundaries

  1. Use a location tagging system to map out the play area
  2. Partition the areas in the map with clear boundaries, and rank these areas according to the previous scale: 0 for real world, 1 for not-quite-there, 2 for magical realism, etc.
  3. Consider that some of these areas can be reached normally, but the magical or secret or mysterious part can only be accessed with certain permissions. Draw these as circles with cross the main boundary.

See the example for Twin Peaks:

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks as an example:

  • “Ruritania” is the Black Lodge
  • The Assassin is Windom Earle
  • Twin Peaks is a colony for Ruritanian exiles, some of whom are magically attuned e.g. Laura Palmer, Sarah Palmer, the Log Lady, Agent Cooper, Garland Briggs, Hawk
  • The Red Room, Agent Cooper’s dictaphone messages to Diane, Tibet, the Log Lady’s log, the owls in the forest, visions by various characters (e.g. the one Garland Briggs relates to Bobby) and possibly even the FBI represent higher states of consciousness

The Map

Several locations. Rating indicates how far they are removed from reality:

The Game

If you were playing Twin Peaks most characters would be drawn together by Laura Palmer’s murder. Agent Cooper travels in from outside but the other characters are already in the location.

The law enforcement characters and indeed everyone affected by Laura Palmer’s death will be interested in getting answers. This would be the arc plot; over the course of the game the Assassin will draw closer and the Black Lodge exert more of an influence.

But there should be episodic drama too, and that’s what the characters should be doing week on week. Dramasystem offers a nice structure to let players frame scenes so they each get spotlight. Consider the balance of incentives in pursuing individual dramatic poles vs. the arc plot.

Ruritania, Magic and Unreality

Agent Cooper’s actions are restricted in the Red Room, and early on he’s only allowed to be a spectator and only to receive cryptic information. He only accesses the room in dreams. All of these point to the level of permission he has to act freely in the Red Room (and the Black Lodge), and (in game terms) the moves he can make in that environment. Furthermore the advent of his dreams is a result of ramping up of weirdness and the psychic world penetrating the real world when he’s in Twin Peaks.

This is what happened when I opened my new bottle of Montblanc Lavender Purple:

You could be forgiven for thinking that’s just dried ink inside the cap, but look at around 8 o’clock and you can see a big fuzzy growth, as well as some stringy stuff in the middle which could be slime or it could just be ink precipitates.

I went for a refund rather than replacement since the stock was all from the same batch (Dec 2020) and replacements could easily be contaminated and/or undertreated with biocide.

There are a few examples of mouldy Montblanc inks on t’internet (more Lavender Purple, and Yellow) although the name usually associated with bottle slime is J. Herbin who had issues in 2010 — caused by challenges of using ingredients that were safer for operators but harder to mix with water, so their treat of biocide wasn’t consistent across all batches (letter here).

Here’s what happened when I went to Concrete Cow a couple of weeks ago. I ran StormHack in the morning slot, then played in Matt Sanderson’s Kult 4e game (I believe the KS playtest version, only partially translated into English) followed by Scott Dorward’s Cthulhu Dark session in the evening.

This first part is a sort of designer diary, mostly about things that went wrong. I’ll talk about the other games I played in part 2.

StormHack

I did a playtest for StormHack. To save time I didn’t write a new scenario but instead grabbed the short and classic See Hwamgaarl and Die from the Sorcerers of Pan Tang supplement from Stormbringer 4th Edition.

I think the scenario went OK (it’s railroady as hell, but works for a fixed-time slot), but on the other hand 75% of the session involved hardly any dice rolling at all. Normally I’m fine with that but it’s hardly a stress test of the system.

The Walkover

The session was too easy. That’s partly a matter of system tuning and scaling but it was mainly caused by three design decisions:

  • Players roll to hit against the threat of damage if they fail (Apocalypse-world style). Keep successfully hitting and you don’t take damage.
  • Rolling was under attribute with a d20, Whitehack style (mostly).
  • Skills allow you to roll with advantage, i.e. roll two dice and pick the result you want.

I checked the probabilities of rolling with advantage; it works out that an advantage is the equivalent of a whopping +5 on your attribute. No wonder everyone was winning.

More importantly this asymmetry just didn’t work with the players. It isn’t “trad”, and it certainly isn’t “OSR”. It wasn’t relatable. And that’s the biggest take-away I had: I wanted an OSR game that didn’t deviate too far from the framework, and I’d added these bits that did not do what I set out to do.

Dice Clocks and Carcosa Hit Dice

See here. These worked OK but for two issues. On the GM side they count down the enemy’s hit points nicely but some players found it difficult to imagine the whole mass of dice as representing several antagonists at once. The idea is that the mass of dice represents the whole threat, and once you’ve knocked out the dice all the antagonists are either dead or fleeing.

But some players need to know how many people they’re fighting, which means how many hit dice per person. This made for a weird kind of double accounting: I had the dice clock down on the table but I still had to translate that into actual numbers of people that they could count down in their heads.

I think this is just a small cognitive hump that needs to be overcome. The other issue was much harder: some players didn’t get the idea of rolling their hit dice on the table, Carcosa style. Whenever dice are rolled the instinct is immediately to snatch them up again (I believe Sorcerer has this problem) rather than let them sit. And the players can be bad at keeping their Hit Dice in play separate from all the other little puddles of dice that are just standing by. And last, when they took hits they looked to the character sheet for a hit point track instead of sacrificing the Hit Dice on the table.

I still think having the GM roll a pool of hit dice for the threat in the middle of the table works as something to focus on. There are things you can do with that (different colours for morale dice, using d8 for demon dice, etc.). But this is a tool to present a heterogeneous body of monsters as a single threat to chew on. You don’t need to do that the other way; each PC is an individual and their character sheet will do fine.

Funny Names

I had some new properties like Heartstrings (after J. Gregory Keyes’ The Waterborn) and Quick. Heartstrings were just Hit Dice and calling them a funny name just confused everyone. As for Quick (a sort of combination of luck/fate points, insight and reflexes) it could work but there was just too much of it as a burnable resource. Besides that stuff normally comes from Ability scores and saving throws. Again, I’d deviated from the OSR plan.

The Demons

This was the biggest issue. The idea of what demons are wasn’t communicated adequately, for example one player treated their demon as an autonymous NPC whereas it’s really a thrall. The main problem was not enough focus on the relationship between owner and demon (see here) so not enough hard bargaining. In the back of my mind Demons are supposed to work like the Shadow in Wraith the Oblivion, and can be played by others at the table within very tight guidelines. The scenario didn’t test that at all.

Demons were supposedly powered by Quick, i.e. spend a point of Quick to get the demon’s Service. Fine in theory but in practice Quick never ran out (one of the players suggested bidding Ability Score points instead, which would have a lot more bite).

So in summary a lot that didn’t go the way I planned but the upside is, I think it’s all fixable; mostly by going back to the original premise, i.e. remixing the OSR portion to add the demon relationships without too much much clever clever changes to combat etc. that aren’t really needed.

That’s all for now. Part 2 will cover the games I played.