Downfall is a narrative tabletop RPG for exactly three players, by Caroline Hobbs. The Kickstarter launched today, after over two years in development. Teal deer: you should back and play it because it’s really good at developing and foregrounding interesting culture-oriented settings.
A recurring challenge of storygames – particularly when you’re talking about one-shot, GMless games run with no preparation – is that establishing setting is difficult. There are lots of different approaches – from the traditionalist ‘all your players really need to read the 50 pages of setting information that the author wrote’ to ‘make your stories in a familiar genre and mostly rely on shared conventions’ to ‘this game is entirely about setting, and has characters and plotlines only to the extent that they facilitate worldbuilding’. Downfall lies towards the worldbuilding-first end of things, but – unlike Microscope and The Quiet Year – it doesn’t accomplish this by abolishing persistent player-characters.
To rephrase. A substantial subset of Serious RPGs are, basically, anthropology games: works like Dog Eat Dog, The Quiet Year, Dogs in the Vineyard, Microscope, Shock and How We Came To Live Here are centrally concerned with examining, simulating, creating and inhabiting fictional or fictionalised cultures. Some of them craft a culture for you and let you explore what it’s like to inhabit and interpret it. Some get you to gradually develop a culture over the course of play. Many, many games expect you to come up with a setting from scratch with relatively few tools, then jump quickly to creating a narrative in that world – a narrative can often be undermined because you don’t have a firm enough grasp of how the world works. Downfall is, hands-down, the best game I’ve seen at giving you structured, step-by-step tools to build a culture that doesn’t feel like an off-the-peg genre exercise, is fleshed-out enough to be navigable and intriguing, yet doesn’t take the entire game to set up. It produces worlds that are genuinely unexpected, without requiring any vast leaps of creative brilliance.
In Radon Canyon, a late-beta game which I played at Go Play NW, we made a society shaped by conformity: a bunch of assimilationist traders who lived in a bridge-crossed canyon, with a technology level that had been stuck at around 1985 levels for generations. They welcomed immigrants, as long as those immigrants were adopted into existing clans and closely followed the conventions of language, diet and dress – particularly the elaborate neon-light-decorated clothing and its shifting fashions. But they had failed to entirely assimilate the Mirror Folk, an indigenous remnant of an earlier culture that had built giant metal mirrors to cast light into the canyon’s depths.
Like a good number of storygames, Downfall is directed towards failure. The society you build is going to fall apart, and nothing the characters can do will prevent this. There’s strong influence from Polaris, another game about a doomed society: but where the demon-haunted world of Polaris excels at cunning antagonism and lethal bargains, Downfall is more concerned with making a culture that is rich, unique and complicated enough to destroy itself, no demons required. In most Polaris games I’ve played, the setting exists mostly for the sake of the tragic heroes who defend it: you don’t weep for Britain or Camelot, you weep for Arthur. In Downfall the hero is an expression of their society, mostly interesting insofar as they reflect and shape that society.
The society you build – the Haven – is built up from a single cultural value, the Flaw, which both defines and dooms it. (It might be something apparently positive.) Out of this you build, develop and interweave traditions and institutions, elaborating on one another’s contributions. The number of traditions, and the degree to which they’re elaborated, hits a really nice sweet-spot of design. There’s enough to feel that you’ve got a living, breathing world, with everything interrelated; but it avoids overcomplexity – too many weird traditions and you might have trouble grasping exactly how it all fits together. (It can still be tricky, particularly if you come up with a world that has counterintuitive traditions – in a recent game I played, we had a trading culture with a strong cultural bias against imported food.) Just as Microscope is sometimes used as a way of creating a campaign setting with a history that the players are really invested in, I think that Downfall‘s setting-creation technique would be pretty powerful if you wanted culture to be foregrounded more than history.
By the time you start creating characters, you tend to have pretty strong ideas about what the really interesting roles would be in this world. (In Radon Canyon, my group was hopping up and down with ideas by this point.) The Hero wants to protect the society, but embodies some of its contradictions; the Pillar is content with the status quo, while the Fallen plays antagonist, pushing the Hero into conflict with society.
The Hero is unambiguously the centre of the story; but the three major characters get passed around, each player playing them in turn. This means that you need to be very clear about why your current character is doing things, what they feel about them, and what the broad consequences of your actions are; there are formal phrases to request more information about this. The Fallen has the special power to invoke unforseen consequences of the Hero’s actions, in a move akin to the ‘but only if…’ of Polaris or the Perspective’s prediction move in Kingdom.
The other neat mechanic of Downfall is that the state of collapse the society is in is the way in which story progress is tracked. You draw a little triangle; after each scene, one player (I think the Pillar) shades in as much of it as seems reasonable, given what’s going on. This works as a sort of progress bar for the game: the more full it is, the worse things are getting, and when it’s filled up, society has collapsed and the game ends. This is a little like the Crisis track of Kingdom, except that it’s analogue rather than digital; this means that you can pace the game as you see fit, either using it to reflect fictional events (‘wow, that scene really set a lot of stuff on fire; I’m shading in a big fat slice’) or to push them (‘okay, we’ve only got half an hour to play: I’m shading in a big fat slice. Start making things go to hell, people.’)
Downfall is effectively complete, aside from a few details of polish and the actual publishing-and-distribution part, so as Kickstarters go this is low-risk. (Edit: it passed its modest goal on the first day, so this is now effectively a pre-order.)